Yom HaShoah: Remembering the Holocaust and heroism

Young people dressed in white and blue carry Israeli flags and walk down railroad tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

March of the Living participants. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SUNDAY, APRIL 23: An Israeli memorial for the 6 million Jewish deaths during the Holocaust is commemorated worldwide as Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. In Israel, state-sponsored and synagogue ceremonies, moments of silence and a March of the Living all paint the picture of this solemn observance.

Also known as “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day” in English, Yom HaShoah has been defined, in recent decades, as having a scope broader than the millions of deaths at the hands of the Nazis and their allies. Today, those who mark this annual observance also remember the Jewish resistance during that era; they celebrate righteous acts in such dangerous times; and they emphasize the meaning of human dignity. (Learn more from the Jewish Virtual Library.)

Yom HaShoah was inaugurated in Israel in 1953, and by the next decade, a siren of silence filled the country’s streets for several minutes each year on the 27th of Nisan. No public entertainment is permitted on Yom HaShoah, and all radio and television programs focus on the day’s memorial.

In 1953, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi signed the proposal for Yom HaShoah, enacting it as law. In Israel, Yom HaShoah is a national memorial day. Flags are flown at half mast; sirens blare in the evening and the following morning; services are held at military bases, in schools and by various organizations. (Wikipedia has details.) Though no specific rituals are carried out on this day, memorial candles and prayers are common.

Each year, one of the major themes associated with Yom HaShoah is the commitment to never forget what happened in this horrific genocide. In the U.S., public schools that once ignored the Holocaust in standard lesson plans—began to include this chapter of history after major public efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. Holocaust memorials, including the national museum in Washington D.C., continued to open. But many who care about this issue are concerned that the message could be fading.

Given an increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents worldwide, over the past year, observances in 2017 take on an increased urgency that these memories continue to motivate actions in defense of human rights.

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Passover: Share matzo, embrace Jewish history & partake in the venerated seder

Passover setting, embroidered cloth

From Nina Paley, courtesy of Vimeo

SUNSET MONDAY, APRIL 10: The traditional search of homes for chametz is officially over, and tonight, Jews begin the joyous festival of Passoverthe most widely observed of all Jewish traditions. After weeks of painstakingly ridding their homes of chametz—any grain product associated with fermentation—families sit back and relax as they join with relatives and friends for a Passover seder (ritual meal).

Tonight begins the seven- or eight-day festival (Jews in Israel observe seven days; Jews of the Diaspora observe eight), as Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. This ancient story of freedom defines Judaism to this day. Among the events in the biblical story recalled during the seder, Jews give thanks to G_d for “passing over” the homes of those whose doors were marked with lamb’s blood during the biblical Plague of the Firstborn; for helping them to escape safely from Egypt’s army and for eventually leading them to freedom.

Interested in viewing the photo at the top of this page as an animation? Check out the link, here.

CHAMETZ: THE LINK TO PASSOVER

Bowl of soup with matzo balls, vegetables

A bowl of matzo soup. Photo by Amy Ross, courtesy of Flickr

Why is it so important to get rid of leavened products? In Jewish families, young and old get involved in cleaning out the chametz as a way of remembering this key part of the Exodus: As the Israelites left Egypt, they moved so quickly that their bread was not able to rise. In the wilderness, the Bible says, God provided sustenance. To this day, unleavened matzo bread is a staple element on seder tables and a symbol of this ancient festival.

Which 2017 household products do not require Passover certification? The Jewish Press offers a free downloadable guide to Passover-safe products, kitchen guidelines and more.

Matzo is made from flour and water that is mixed and baked in 18 minutes. As matzo is such an important element of Passover, many Jews are trying to revive the art of homemade matzo. Baking matzo is a challenge; only 18 minutes are allowed between the mixing of flour and water to the finishing of baking. Elaborate measures are taken to ensure the mixture does not rise.

FAST OF THE FIRSTBORN—TO SEDER

During the day today, Jewish families may observe the Fast of the Firstborn. Tonight, after sunset, Passover will commence. As Passover begins, seders—ritualistic meals with readings, stories, songs and spirited discussion—are held in Jewish households everywhere. Attending a Passover seder is a universal expression of Judaism.

Did you know? The true intent of the Passover seder is to not only recall Jewish history, but to discuss the contemporary meaning of ancient Jewish wisdom, passing on that valuable information to the next generation of Jews.

Throughout the holiday period, and in more traditionally observant households, the dishes and baking tools used for the Passover seder are reserved only for this time and have never come into contact with chametz. The Passover seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through readings from the Haggadah.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day of Passover, keeping track of the omer—an ancient unit of measure—marks the days from Passover to Shavuot.

 

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Purim: Jews masquerade, parade and feast in honor of Esther

A group of girls in matching purple skirts and costumes walks down an open road

Girls participate in a Purim procession in Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET SATURDAY, MARCH 11: Happy Purim!

Purim may be a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish year, but there’s no question: It’s fun!

Jews end the Fast of Esther tonight and feast, masquerade and drink for the joyous festival, recalling Queen Esther and the victory she managed to pull off for the Jewish people in the face of the Persian Empire’s crushing power. Because they were saved from destruction and won over their foes, Jews celebrate gaily and throw parties for adults and children alike. The masks and costumes associated with Mardi Gras are echoed in Purim’s customs as celebrants dress up to symbolize God’s “hidden presence” in the events of the Book of Esther.

Triangle-shaped pastries, filled with jam, on white plate with red cloth beneath

Haman’s pockets, a traditional treat made for Purim. Photo by ulterior epicure, courtesy of Flickr

‘BLOTTING OUT’ HAMAN: STOMPS, NOISEMAKERS & POCKET TREATS

Purim day begins with a reading of the Book of Esther, which is often done publicly in the synagogue. As the evil Haman’s name is read—which occurs 54 times—Jews stomp their feet and rattle noisemakers, to “blot out” his name. Some Jews even write Haman’s name on the bottom of their shoes, so as to literally stomp on his name!

Purim is associated with good food and drink. One particular treat exchanged on Purim is Hamantaschen, “Haman’s pockets,” which consists of sweet pastry filled with prunes or poppy seeds. In the jovial nature of Purim, adults are encouraged to drink until they can’t tell the difference between “cursed by Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”

Traditional Purim costumes reflect the various roles in the story of Esther. However, as Jewish organizations continue to make merry on this ancient holiday, new ideas arise—including cultural themes that tie Purim with the 21st century: themes like Harry Potter, “Star Wars” and Marvel superheroes have gained popularity in recent years.

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Tu B’Shevat: Honor sustainable agriculture and trees for Jewish New Year

Grove of trees from above

Fruit trees in Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10: It’s a New Year for Trees!

Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, falls on the 15th day of the month of Shevat. This year, it begins on Friday evening, February 10. An ancient commemoration of the start of the agricultural year, Tu B’Shevat is one of four annual Jewish New Years.

Why record the age of trees? In centuries past, farmers would mark the age of their trees in order to calculate their eligibility for fruit harvest and tithing. According to Leviticus 19:23-25, a tree’s fruit may only be eaten after its fifth year: in the first three years the fruit is forbidden, and in the fourth year, the fruit must be set apart for God. When the State of Israel was reestablished, in 1948, interest in the ancient festival surged. Jewish people were farmers, once again, and the fruits of the land of Israel were celebrated.

THE TU B’SHEVAT SEDER

Today, the TuBishvat seder is observed in many Jewish households and synagogues. Many partake in the fruits and nuts of Israel, while reflecting on the need for sustainable agriculture. It is recognized that man depends upon the fruits of agriculture.

Did you know? Tu Bishvat is also called “Rosh HaShanah La’Ilanot.”

In recent years, the Tu Bishvat seder has become a popular custom, and many synagogues hold one; it’s an opportunity to eat fruits, nuts and other produce of Israel; to consider the miraculous process by which we sustain our own lives by eating agricultural products; and to explore our responsibility to sustainable agriculture and the planet that feeds us.

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Holocaust Remembrance Day: World reflects on Elie Wiesel, genocide education

“I have tried to keep memory alive … I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the centre of the universe.”

-Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), from the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Oslo, December 1986

 

Asian woman looks at reflective wall covered in numbers, outdoors

A woman at the New England Holocaust Memorial, Boston. Photo by Wally Gobetz, courtesy of Flickr

FRIDAY, JANUARY 27: A focus on remembrance and education activities is the United Nations theme for Holocaust Remembrance Day 2017 under the title, “Holocaust Remembrance: Educating for a Better Future.” On this, the anniversary date of the liberation of Auschwtiz-Birkenau, every United Nations member nation is asked to commemorate the memory of those who perished during the Nazi genocide. According to the UN, the theme for 2017 emphasizes the fact that Holocaust education has a universal dimension and can serve as a platform for discussing human rights, increasing tolerance and defending the collective humanity.

(Note: The older annual remembrance of the Holocaust, Yom Hashoah, will begin at sundown on April 23 this year.)

Following a 2005 session that marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust, the United Nations established International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Countries worldwide remember the 6 million European Jews and millions of others who lost their lives during the massive Nazi “Final Solution.” Each Jan. 27, the United Nations reinforces its rejection of denial of the Holocaust, its rejection of religious intolerance, and the need to preserve Holocaust sites. (Learn more from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.)

The camp we know as Auschwitz actually was a complex of three camps, and together, they were the largest such facility established by the Nazi regime. Auschwitz II—also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau—was established in 1942, and of the three camps, Auschwitz II contained the highest number of prisoners. Between 1942 and 1944, more than 1 million Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau; the largest group of Jews sent to the camp came from Hungary, in numbers approximated at 426,000. It wasn’t until Jan. 27, 1945 that Soviet forces evacuated Auschwitz.

HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY 2017: ELIE WIESEL & EXHIBITIONS

Some major observances of International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2017 include remembrances of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, author of “Night” and Nobel Peace Prize winner who passed away in July of 2016. (CNN has a tribute article on the life of Elie Wiesel.) Other major events surrounding Holocaust Remembrance Day include the exhibition State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda; a screening of the documentary film Persona Non Grata, which reveals the story of a Japanese diplomat who issued visas to Jewish refugees in Kaunas, Lithuania, and saved thousands of lives; and a discussion entitled, “Sugihara: Being an Upstander in a Tumultuous World.” Memorial events are encouraged in all UN member states. (Learn more here.)

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Celebrate light and freedom at Hanukkah

A Mother and Daughter light Hanukkah candles

Mother and daughter light Hanukkah candles. (Photo by Trinitro Tolueno, who allows public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 24: On this night—and for a total of 8 nights—it’s Hanukkah. Jewish families light candles, fry up latkes and many children try their luck at a game played with a four-sided top known as a dreidel. Though not as religiously significant as other Jewish holidays, such as Passover and Yom Kippur, Hanukkah is widely celebrated, and is easily recognized even by non-Jews.

Interested in crafting your own DIY menorah? Find tips and ideas for a fun homemade menorah here.

Several inspiring themes are part of this festival, including the power of light itself at this ever-darker time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Another major theme of Hanukkah is religious freedom. As the traditional story is retold in most Jewish families, a wicked ruler more than 2,000 years ago was determined to force Jews to leave their ancient traditions behind in favor of practices drawn from Greek culture. Instead, a rebel force known as the Maccabees heroically defeated these rulers and restored the traditional rituals in the Jerusalem temple.

Did you know? The Maccabeats, an all-male a cappella group based out of Yeshiva University, is popularly known for its Hanukkah song, “Candlelight” (access the music video that’s been seen by more than 12 million viewers via YouTube).

Most Jewish families also retell a story about the small amount of sacred oil that was left in the rededicated temple—a tiny amount of oil that nevertheless managed to keep the temple’s light going for eight days. That’s why Hanukkah food traditions involve oil, to this day—especially potato pancakes better known as latkes.

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latkes and a fork by-Olga-MassovWANT TO TRY LATKES? FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis serves up a guest column about making these tasty potato pancakes.

 

THE MENORAH

Hanukkah is faithfully observed by most Jews with the lighting of candles in a nine-branched menorah with one candle for each of the eight nights and one extra candle (the shamash), which is often placed separately from the others. The shamash must be used for “practical” purposes, so that the remaining candles may be used solely for publicizing the miracle of the oil. Some families substitute small oil lamps for candles.

DEBRA DARVICK & THIS JEWISH LIFE

Cover This Jewish Life book cover by Debra Darvick

CLICK this cover to find out more about Debra Darvick’s book.

In her inspiring book, This Jewish Life, Debra Darvick writes dozens of true stories about Jewish men and women experiencing the seasons in Judaism. In one section of her book, she explains the basics about Hanukkah’s commemoration of “the Jewish victory over Syrian emperor Antiochus and his army. In 167 BC, Antiochus decreed the practice of Judaism to be an offense punishable by death. The Temple was desecrated, and the Syrians went so far as to sacrifice pigs in the Temple. A Jew named Mattathias and his five sons began a revolt not only against Antiochus, but against the Jews who were quite willing to take on the ways of the majority population and jettison Jewish practice. Three years later, the Maccabees, as the Jewish fighters were known, and their followers, were victorious and the Temple was once again in Jewish hands.”

She explains that “according to Jewish tradition, when the Temple was finally cleansed for re-dedication, there was but a single day’s supply of ritually pure oil for the ner tamid, the everlasting light that hangs in every synagogue as a symbol of God’s ever-presence. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to press and ritually purify additional oil for the ner tamid.”

Debra warns readers that this “is not the time of year to start a diet, for the two foods most associated with the holiday are latkes, potato pancakes, and sufganiot, Israeli for jelly donuts, both of which are fried in veritable lakes of oil.” Oh, and if that’s not a high enough calorie count—there’s also the “gelt, chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.”

 

 

 

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Yom Kippur: Jews fast 25 hours, wrap up High Holidays on Day of Atonement

Fast blessings with empty bones in back

Photo by Paul Jacobson, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET TUESDAY, OCTOBER 11: From the sweetness and high hopes of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish families move to the solemn observance of what often is called the holiest day in the calendar: Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Between these two major holidays, a period sometimes called the Days of Awe, Jews reflect on the past year and make amends. They look toward the balance of the new year, which is only 10 days old on Yom Kippur, and pray that God will renew their spirits and guide them in good ways. On Yom Kippur, most Jews 13 and older try to complete a daunting 25-hour fast with nothing passing the lips—no liquids or foods—in order to deepen their relationship with G_d.

YOM KIPPUR: HIGH ATTENDANCE

Visit any Jewish house of worship and you will see ways that the main seating area can be expanded on special occasions; Yom Kippur is the main holiday when all the partitions separating rooms are removed, overflow seating sometimes is added in other parts of the building and the majority of the Jewish community shows up for at least part of the long series of services.

Front coer of music with man photographed at center

Kol Nidre sheet music. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Services open with Kol Nidre, when the larger Jewish community gathers, amends are made. There is a long and complex history to the traditions of Kol Nidre, though overall, Kol Nidre represents a fresh resetting of commitments and promises within the community.

Did you know? Rabbis typically spend a great deal of time preparing their Yom Kippur sermons, recognizing that they are preaching to some men and women who only hear them on Yom Kippur. Christian clergy face a similar challenge, each year, in preparing their Easter and Christmas Eve sermons.

Although Yom Kippur is a solemn day, it is also one of celebration: Celebration of the anniversary of G_d forgiving the Jewish people for worshipping the golden calf. According to Jewish scholar and ReadTheSpirit contributing writer, Joe Lewis:

By traditional calculation, Moses brought the second tablets to the people on Yom Kippur. God’s nature is revealed to Moses as a God of mercy and compassion, patience and kindness (Ex. 34:6), and this idea is central to the liturgy of the day. We end the day with a blast on the shofar, eat our fill, and make plans for the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), which is only five days away.

FEED THE SPIRIT—For Yom Kippur, Bobbie Lewis writes about the nature of the 25-hour fast as it is observed by most Jewish families, and she includes a delicious recipe for salmon, which her family enjoys in preparation for the fast.

For families: Yom Kippur offers a unique opportunity for children to see their parents engaged in serious observance of their religious traditions, and the days leading up to the holiday allow families to examine and discuss their relationships. Families might want to write a themed letter each year; break fast together on Yom Kippur; and engage young members in the Yizkor memorial service, for parents who have passed away.

For non-Jews, 10 basic facts on Rosh Hashanah are provided in an article by the International Business Times.

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