Ah, Sunday

The wife and kids were off today for Chanukah vacation so I took off as well. We woke up late, went on a short hike about a 5 minute drive from our home where we visited the ruins of a Byzantine church and two agricultural villages - one from the Byzantine era and one from more recently (the ruins were about 60 year sold or so). The landmarks can be seen just below the border of modern Modiin on this map - look for Haditheh and Baweirah. We live just at the corner of modern MOdiin, near the box marked Umm al Umdan.

After the excursion, we went to the supermarket to pick up a particular gift that will be presented later tonight, but also treated ourselves to sufganiyot.

Then we went to watch my nephew's Little League baseball game - his team, from Hashmonaim, played against the team from Modiin; the epic Chanukah battle ended in a 9-9 tie.

After we finish bathing and lighting, we will be headed to my folks' home for our annual Chanukah shindig with the extended family.

The night will conclude with that traditional combination of beer and foootball, and I will probably be up late watching the Ravens game (unless the Patriots lose the early game; even if they win, I don't want to hear any Pts fans whining. They had a softball schedule, playing a full 8 games against the AFC and NFC west).

Sundays happen so infrequently here, but when they do present themselves, they are truly enjoyable. So enjoy this happy conflation of Chanukah, Rosh Chodesh, and Sunday!

Kind of makes you forget that a war just started here...

BBC Translators

I have taken it upon myself to translate some news posted by the BBC into plain English. The examples come from this article on Operation Cast Lead:

Wherever Hamas operates, civilians live and work close by.
Translation: Hamas uses civilian shields to deter attacks that will include inevitable civilian collateral damage.

The United States is arguably the only outside power Israel deeply cares about.
Translation: The United States is arguably the only outside power that deeply cares about Israel.


IV: Chanukah as the Festival of Religious Freedom

This celebration is also characteristic of America, but as a more religious expression than simply the Jewish Christmas (i.e., in American Jewish religious communities that embrace American values). It tends to downplay the military aspect of the holiday, and instead emphasizes the Jewish “struggle” to maintain an identity in the face of a prevailing culture and to win religious freedom.

The theme of Jewish freedom of worship is certainly present in various midrashim that describe the decrees against the practice of Judaism (Rosh Chodesh, circumcision, Torah study, etc.) and against belief in the God of the Jews (kitvu al keren ha-shor…). It appears in the al ha-nisim paragraph as well (“to make them forget Your Torah and transgress Your beloved commandments”). Other compositions seem to indicate that Judaism was in actual danger of disappearance due to the onslaught of Hellenism. In fact, the entire theme of rededication of the Temple, from which the holiday derives its name, is quite possibly the historical reason for the institution of the festival.

Of course, the American version tends to superimpose 20th Century American ideas of religious identity and freedom onto the 2nd Century BCE, but hey, we try to keep it warm and fuzzy.


Which o' deez things iz not like da uthas?

This actually appears on a website which lists government translation opportunities:

It is anticipated that Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans and Washington Field Divisions will have a variety of language requirements for Title III linguist support in the various locations. Required languages are as follows; Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, Jamaican Patois, Chinese (Cantonese), Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Russian, Albanian, and Ebonics.


III: The American Chanukah – Christmas for the Jews

The notion that Chanukah might correspond to the holidays of other cultural traditions is not a new one. The Gemara in Avoda Zarah (2b) speaks of an eight day holiday, Saturnalia, first celebrated by Adam when he noticed that the days had begun to get longer. Indeed, innumerable cultures hold celebrations around the winter solstice, and it is an intuitive annual landmark. In general, Jewish holidays do correspond to the seasons. Sukkot, a harvest festival, is not the same as Thanksgiving or Oktoberfest, but they are rooted in a similar consciousness (see here).

Christmas seems to have originated as the Christianized version of pagan midwinter festivals. Various yuletide customs have been traced (correctly or incorrectly) back to pagan practices. This being the case, an argument can be made (though not an especially compelling one) that Christmas and Chanukah share some lineage.

The historical question is largely beside the point, however. In the American cultural milieu, Christmas became a dominant cultural practice that excluded non-Christians (such as Jews and Chinese, who inevitably began celebrating Christmas together, with the former eating food prepared by the latter). Chanukah, by virtue of its temporal proximity to Christmas, naturally filled that void.

Not all “observances” and customs associated with this syncretistic celebration are as over-the-top as the “Hanukkah bush” or “Hanukkah Harry”. The giving of “Chanukah presents” has penetrated even the more traditional segments of the Jewish community. American gentile culture clearly associates the two holidays since it has adopted the generic “happy holiday” greeting to cover all observances associated with the season. Television commercials with Christian and Jewish symbols appear during the season. The term “Christmakwanzukkah” has come to symbolize this amalgam of various traditions and observances.

There has been a more recent shift in American culture for Jews to take pride in their identity, but this trend nevertheless uses Christmas as the yardstick. To wit: “Instead of one day of presents, we’ve got eight crazy nights”.


II: The Chareidi Chanukah – Am le-Vadad Yishkon

Last week, my daughter’s chareidi school had a pre-Chanukah party in which the girls performed a number of songs on the holiday theme (or so I was told by my wife, who was allowed to attend; as a man, I was not). The songs were well known selections such as “Baruch Elokeinu she-beranu le-khvodo…” and “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu”. The themes of these songs was Jewish isolation and separatism.

I recently read several articles by Dr. Benjamin Brown, including “Rabbi E.M. Shach: Admiration of Spirit, Critique of Nationalism, and Political Involvement”. The thesis of the article is that this type of separatism was a pillar of R’ Shach’s worldview and politics.

Chanukah, in this way of thinking, celebrates the maintenance of the purity of the Jewish/ Torah way of life in the face of prevailing culture. As opposed to the Zionist celebration, which focuses on the external enemy of the Chanukah story, the Chareidi narrative highlights the internal enemies, the Hellenizing Jews, as the primary antagonists (a point which I satirized with an alternative story of the origin of the custom of spinning the dreidl here).

Many of the themes of the holiday lend themselves easily to this approach – small lights in the face of overwhelming darkness, untouched flasks of pure oil, an obligation of the entire household as one, the idea of being surrounded by mitzvot, and the notable midrash that appears in Rashi on the leyning for the last day of Chanukah – “shelcha gedolah mi-shelahem, she-atah meitiv u-madlik et ha-neitrot” (“yours is superior to theirs, for you set up and light the candles”).

In truth, the themes of particularism and universalism have been in tension within Judaism for a very long time – even before the Chanukah story. I do not believe that it is possible to resolve the question of whether Judaism in universal or particularist in favor of one approach or the other. There is no doubt, though, that different groups of Jews have adopted attitudes all along the spectrum. The Chareidi approach strongly tends toward the particularist end of the spectrum. Like the Zionist celebration, this approach picks up on the elements of Chanukah that corroborate its fundamental narrative of radical cultrural/ religious isolationism.


I: The Israeli Chanukah – A Celebration of Jewish Might

Last year, I wrote a short post about how the Chanukah narrative is shaped by the group celebrating, and that different Jewish groups celebrate, essentially, different Chanukahs.

Three years ago, I wrote a different Dvar Torah on each night of Chanukah (all of them can be viewed under this label, or in the archives for December 2005). This year, I will combine the two elements, and write about a different form of celebration each night.

Early mainstream Zionism adopted Chanukah as a celebration of the victories of a Jewish army. In its vigor to create the “New Jew”, the Zionist movement enlisted every example of a Jewish military hero and celebrated him as a Zionist or proto-Zionist figure. It gave the nascent state and pre-state a sense of continuity and tradition with a distant but glorious and heroic past. This ardor to generate a new Jewish narrative of “strength” is best expressed (and caricatured) in Hazaz’s famous short story, The Sermon (1942):

Jewish history is so dull, so uninteresting. It has no glory or action, no heroes and conquerors, no rulers and masters of their fate, just a collection of wounded, hunted, groaning and wailing wretches always begging for mercy. I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors' shame? I would just say to them: `Boys, from the day we were driven out from our land, we've been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football!’

This ethos was projected onto the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, and is even reflected in several very popular Israeli folk songs for Chanukah. This first one is the Hebrew rendition of the Yiddish Oy, Chanekeh or English Oh, Chanukah:

,ימי החנוכה חנוכת מקדשנו
בגיל ובשמחה ממלאים את ליבנו
לילה ויום סביבונינו יסוב
.סופגניות נאכל בם לרוב
!האירו ! הדליקו
נרות חנוכה רבים
על הניסים ועל הנפלאות
.אשר חוללו המכבים
,ניצחון המכבים נספר, נזמרה
על האויבים אז ידם כי גברה
ירושלים שבה לתחיה
.עם ישראל עשה תושיה
!האירו ! הדליקו

The key point lies in lines 7-11, which describe the miracles, wonders, and victories wrought by the Macabees. The other example, perhaps even more classic, is entitled Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell?)

?מי ימלל גבורות ישראל אותם מי ימנה
העם הן בכל דור יקום הגבור גואל

בימים ההם בזמן הזה
מכבי מושיע ופודה
ובימינו כל עם ישראל
.יתאחד יקום ויגאל

Here, the Zionist ethos comes to the fore right off the bat: “Who can retell the strengths of Israel, who can count them? Yea, in each generation the hero, the nation’s redeemer, shall arise”. It is significant that both of these popular songs transpose epithets that the Jewish tradition reserves for God onto human Jewish heroes: The “miracles… and wonders that You have done for our ancestors” (ha-nissim... ve-al ha-nifla’ot she-asita la-avoteinu) becomes “the miracles and wonders that the Maccabees wrought”. In the saying “Who can retell the strengths of God” (Mi yimalel gevurot Hashem) “Israel” replaces “God”.

This general transposition is reflected in many other ubiquitous (and therefore barely noticed anymore) elements of Israeli culture. Israel’s Olympics are called the Maccabiah Games, and many of its sports clubs are named Maccabi.

There is no doubt that this celebration of the Jewish military victory drew from traditional sources. One cannot but help get the feeling, however, that the conclusion of Yudke’s speech in Hazaz’s story underlies this Zionist Chanukah narrative:

Zionism and Judaism are not the same. They are two very different things entirely, maybe even opposed to one another. When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes a Zionist.


Rabbi Mendel Feldman, ob”m

It is with great personal sadness that I note the passing for Rav Menachem Mendel Ha-Kohen Feldman, ob”m, in Sydney, Australia.
I was fortunate to have known Rabbi Feldman in many different contexts. When my father spoke of “Rebbi”, he meant Rabbi Feldman. Later, Rabbi Feldman became the rav of Khal Ahavas Yisrael Tzemach Tzedek, a shtibl (now with a proper building) on Park Heights Avenue, a block away from the house where I grew up. That was our shul for about a decade, from when it opened until the family made aliyah, like a number of Rebbi’s other close talmidim, in 1995. A few years after opening the shul, the Feldmans moved to a condo one floor below my grandparents’ on Park Heights.
An illness prevented him from being mesader Kiddushin at my wedding, but he spoke at Sheva Brachot and blessed the young couple with Birkat Kohanim, which was his trademark to the degree that it is possible for that ancient blessing to be the trademark of one person. In my mind’s eye, I can recall lining up after shul on Friday night, when all of the children would line up and be individually blessed by Rabbi Feldman. I still see the wispy ends of his never-shaven beard resting on his plain black frock coat, and still even smell him, as I bend my head to receive Rebbi’s Birkat Kohanim on Friday night. I remember doing the same at my Bar Mitzvah. In addition, he was Koreh Shem at my brit milah, and read the ketubah at the wedding of my parents. I remember my father lining up behind all of the children on his last Friday night before making aliyah from Baltimore. I remember Rebbi reaching up to give my father his bracha; they were both crying. He also lent my father a pair of Tefillin aliba de-Rabbenu Tam, so that his physical aliyah would be accompanied by a spiritual aliyah. My father still wears Rabbenu Tam tefillin daily (he bought his own set a year later). The following picture is of Rabbi Feldman being podeh my eldest nephew:
Rabbi Feldman, who passed away at the age of 89, was born and lived almost his entire life in the United States. He grew up in New York and studied in Yeshivat Tomchei Temimim, under the guidance of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, and at Mesivta Torah Vodaas. After a short stint as a rabbi in Jacksonville, FL, he moved to Baltimore with his wife, Rochelle/ Rochel (nee Simpson), where he served as a Rebbi at the Talmudical Academy and succeeded Rav Shimon Schwab as the Rav of Shearith Israel (the “Glen Avenue Shul”), where he served for over 25 years. After his retirement from AYTT after two decades, the Feldmans emigrated to Australia to be near their son, Rav Pinchas Feldman, Chief Chabad Rabbi of New South Wales, Australia. Rabbi Feldman outlived his wife by several years.
He made the greatest impression, though, with his personal humility, care and concern. He was never a charismatic speaker (though each of his drashot opened with “Yedidai” and ended by expressing belief in the impending arrival of “Mashiach Mamash” – I do not know if that practice continued after the passing of the Rebbe, ob”m), but he attracted a very loyal and devoted following in Baltimore with his warmth and humor, by being accepting and offering guidance to his devotees. Once he became a person’s Rebbi, he remained so for life. He was also an active member of Baltimore’s Beit Din, especially with regard to matters of giyur and gittin, and the chavruta of Rav Moshe Heinemann.
An aspect of his personality which often flew under the radar, especially in Baltimore, was his Ahavat Eretz Yisrael. A significant number of his devotees made aliyah, and he took a tremendous amount of pride in their decision. On one of his last visits to Israel, his former students met with him at a restaurant, and reported that they had never before seen him in such a state of ecstasy.
Tehe Nishmato Tzerura be-Tzror ha-Chayim.
This is just so painful to see.



Ironically, the day after citing Prof. Bernstein's quote - "my toilet overflows; my cup runneth over" - this gem appears in Haaretz. Overfloweth? You must be joking.

By the way, the book reviewed in that article sounds fascinating.