In this season of Thanksgivukkah, I’ve started to think a lot about cultural syncretism. I’ve come to the conclusion that, as a Jewish banjo player playing Hebrew prayers, I’m a very good example of cultural syncretism.
Cultural syncretism can be defined as combining aspects of two different and separate cultures, traditions, or belief systems. Some good examples of cultural syncretism in Jewish life would be the Passover seder being based on a royal meal in Ancient Greece, Ashkenazi challah being a Jewish take on German sweet bread, or the convenient similarities between Purim and Mardi Gras.
So how is a Jewish banjo player an ultimate example of this phenomenon? This calls for a brief history lesson:
The banjo began not in backwoods America, but in medieval Africa. During the colonial period, the banjo was brought over to the Americas by enslaved Africans who found similar materials easily available in their new environment. Soon enough, European Americans soon learned about the banjo from the enslaved African Americans, and by the mid-18th century, European Americans were touring around the country playing banjo in rural and urban settings (typically in minstrel fashion, including the infamous blackface). They also merged it with other musical traditions they were familiar with such as Irish, English, and Scottish music. Everyone was doing it!
Although the banjo waned in popularity in the early 20th century, it was re-popularized in the 1940s with the advent of bluegrass music (a combination of jazz and blues), most Jewish players of the banjo didn’t begin to learn it until the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. And nowadays, these Jewish players also have brought the banjo into many modern Klezmer bands, combining it with our own old-time Eastern European traditions. They’ve also created their own genre – Jewgrass. Check out Lucky Break, Banjo Billy, and The Sinai Mountain Boys!
It’s one of those ideas that it is hard to wrap my head around. When I’m playing Debbie Friedman’s Havdalah on the banjo, using chords and lyrics from the handy Shireinu, I’m not combining just African and Jewish traditions. Instead, I’m really combining African, Jewish, Irish, English, Scottish, American, and Eastern European musical traditions into one.
If that’s not cultural syncretism – I’m not sure what is. Bring it on, Thanksgivukkah!
The Daf Yomi (Hebrew for “page a day”), is a program for learning Talmud. Participants study one page a day, individually or in groups, and after 7 years they have read all 2,711 pages of Talmud. Last time the cycle finished, there was a huge celebration at Met Life Stadium. Of the 90,000 people who attended, the vast majority were Orthodox Jewish men.
Despite being interested, I hesitated because I like to look at the sources through a critical historical lens—a very different approach than that used by Orthodox Daf Yomi resources. One day, I read about an Unorthodox Daf Yomi group on Facebook. After checking it out, I was inspired; I had to do it. So with the help of the Koren Steinsaltz Talmud, the JCAST Network’s Daily Daf Differently podcasts, Adam Kirsch’s weekly Tablet column on the Daf Yomi, and Rabbi Adam Chalom’s Not Your Father’s Talmud blog from a few years ago, I have read through about 60 full pages.
Through this process, I have begun to make the Talmud my own. I read the laws, discussions, and stories, and visualize how they would have applied in the Ancient Jewish world, but I can also reinterpret them to be applicable to my own life as a religiously liberal American Jew in modern times.
One of these gems is the only Talmudic mention of our current holiday, Chanukah! While the High Holidays, Purim and Passover get their own sections, Chanukah is only mentioned once, in tractate Shabbat. In it, along with many of the other laws of Hanukkah, the rabbis discuss how many menorahs each household should light:
The Rabbis taught: The law of Chanukah demands that every man should light one lamp for himself and his household. Those who seek to embellish the mitzvah have a lamp lit for every member of the household. (Shabbat 21b)
This passage echoes one of my favorite ideas of Judaism, that there is often more than one correct way to observe a tradition. I would argue further that there are many ways to lead a Jewish life, including my own non-Orthodox reading of Talmud through Daf Yomi. There is no single correct way to celebrate Hanukkah, so if you want to light one menorah for the entire household that’s great. But if you want to light one menorah for each person in the household, that’s great too. In my house growing up, we would occasionally put up decorations and occasionally give gifts. But always, each of us always lit his or her menorah, and every year we would take a family picture—including the dog—behind all of our Chanukah lights.
Many families light the candles, play dreidel, and sing maoh tzur or other songs. Other families, especially in this Southern land of fried food, revel in eating fried sufganyot and fried potato latkes. I’ve heard of some people making beignets or fried chicken! A lot of Jewish children in the South (and throughout the United States) have at least one set of non-Jewish grandparents, and some families celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas, with traditions shared to acknowledge their entire family – since family, of course, is so important to us all. However you celebrate it, and however you spell it (I used a couple different spellings in this post …), have a wonderful festival of lights!
What are some of the special ways that your family celebrates Hanukkah?
“a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected”
(The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English)
Over the summer, every ISJL Education Fellow visits each of “our communities” – the 6-7 congregations we each serve, throughout the region. The summer visits are brief, and may take the form of an evening program, or just an hour to meet with the religious school director or synagogue president. Though the meetings are short, they’re often far away – and that means we are in the car quite a bit.
On those long drives, it’s important to take a break now and then. As a history buff, I try to make sure that those breaks include visits to historical sites. On a recent trip, my companions and I (we often travel in groups for summer visits) decided to eat lunch in Selma, Alabama. I didn’t know it then, but the brief stop would turn into my own unexpected, unplanned pilgrimage.
Entering Selma, we drove over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I knew the bridge was famous, so we pulled over to take a picture. I remembered that it had something to do with a march during the Civil Rights Movement, but I wasn’t clear on the specifics. Reading the signs, I learned that the bridge was the scene of the Selma to Montgomery march and “Bloody Sunday.” It dawned on me that Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Abraham Joshua Heschel had all marched over this bridge in their attempt to create a just and free society in America. It was this bridge Heschel spoke of when he described acts of social justice as “praying with our feet.” I thought about it a little bit, but feeling touristy, I just walked over the bridge, took some photos and moved on.
Over lunch I had the idea to investigate the Selma synagogue. I knew it was there, and, after looking it up, realized it was less than a mile from where we were eating.
After a bit of searching, we spied a circular window with a large Jewish star smack dab in the middle. We parked in the grassy driveway and got out to look around. Once again, we took some pictures, walked around, and got back in the car and left.
Mulling it over later, I realized that visiting these two very different locations made up an unofficial, unplanned pilgrimage. Together, the two sites reflect the spirit of humanity, the power of dedicated people to come together and accomplish big things.
Sure, the synagogue is a beautiful old building constructed in 1899. But it symbolizes something bigger: the power of Jewish community to sustain itself and thrive anywhere. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like for a European Jewish immigrant to arrive and settle in Selma in the 1890s – but I am confident that it must not have been an easy transition. It took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, to build and sustain a synagogue like this, especially in the Deep South, far away from much of the Jewish world.
Likewise, it took courage, chutzpah, dedication, and community, for those civil rights activists and ordinary people in the 1960s to march across the bridge, facing armed Alabama lawmen determined to stop them from creating change. Their efforts helped to develop the society we live in today.
Pilgrimages are supposed to inspire us, to help us become better people and to give us goals to strive for. My unexpected pilgrimage did just that. I hope that, perhaps, in my next two years as an ISJL Education Fellow, I can emulate the courage, chutzpah, and dedication of these amazing individuals as I help to maintain and support our Southern Jewish community.