Let’s make a new Jewish holiday.
Let’s make a new Jewish holiday.
When I opened a recent daily e-mail from The Jewish Daily Forward, that’s what author J.J. Goldberg invited me to do.
Reading the headline, “Why We Should Honor Slain Civil Rights Workers With Jewish Holiday,” my instinct was to feel skeptical. We’ve already got the High Holidays, three festivals, Chanukah, Purim, Tu Bish’vat, days devoted to the state of Israel and the Holocaust, minor fast days, and 52 Shabbatot every year. We have the Omer count, the month of Elul, and the 9 days leading up to Tisha B’av – periods of time that, while not quite holidays, are additional times of year already marked with meaning.
We need another holiday now?
The headline startled me a little and confused me even more. But then I did what I probably should have done right away. I read the article. It turns out that Goldberg might just be onto something.
I won’t spell out all of the specific points of the article, but I will hone in on one portion, where Goldberg describes a large group of modern-day Jews – those who connect to Judaism largely because they believe that it relates issues of social justice. Furthermore, he explains, these people are often not connecting with Jewish institutions – despite the fact that many of them feel a passionate connection to their Jewish identities.
He asks a vital question about this sub-section of the Jewish people. “How can the Jewish community approach them, when its agendas, institutions and even calendar so little resemble their Judaism?”
Many Jewish texts, including our most holy, contain ideas that many in this modern-day cohort would love. Environmental ethics can be found all over the Torah. Anti-war activists need look no farther than the book of Isaiah’s cry to beat our swords into ploughshares. Texts in the Mishnah can be linked to Transgender equality today.
But there’s a problem with this. The aforementioned sub-section of Jews likely isn’t just picking up the book of Isaiah or a tractate of Mishnah on a regular basis. There needs to be an entry point. An occasion where the Jewish community collectively trumpets from its synagogues and community centers that this tradition exists. That social justice has long been a part of our tradition, and, God-willing, will still be for centuries to come.
We cannot and should not conclude that social justice and Judaism are the same. They are not. In addition to the above examples, there are real elements of the Jewish tradition that challenge, or even directly contradict, many liberal pre-dispositions. Sometimes those of us who are liberal overlook that vital truth, and to do so is a mistake.
But, if done thoughtfully, a Jewish holiday recognizing our historic connection to issues of social justice could be a vital tool as we look for ways to engage this group of Jews. It could be the perfect entry point for those who care about Social Justice and their Jewish identity, but have not yet learned how to blend those two passions into one.
So today, 16th of Tammuz (July 14th), I’m taking JJ Goldberg’s advice, and celebrating those links that exist between Jewish tradition and values of social justice. I’ll be balancing a look back at the past with a gaze into the future. I’ll take some time to reflect on the murders of three civil rights workers in my very own state of Mississippi, and, more positively, on the incredible work that was done in the aftermath of their deaths. As I look forward, I’ll be thinking about steps that I can take, as a Jew and as a human being, to minimize the possibility of similar crimes from being committed today or in the future.
I invite you to join me.
When I see the word “Palestine,” a number of images come to mind: questions regarding borders, refugees, the city of Jerusalem, and more Middle Eastern musings. But from now on, when I read or hear the word “Palestine,” I’ll think of something else as well. I’ll think of a small town – Palestine, Texas – and a man named Sam who owns a diner there.
This Friday, I was on my way to Waco, Texas to visit Congregation Agudath Jacob. Around 1:00 or so, my fellow Education Fellow Allison Poirier and I saw the official “Welcome to Palestine” sign on the side of the road! Needless to say, we were quite pleased with the name of this town. We made a few other nerdy Jewish Educator jokes related to the town’s name, but we soon realized that we were quite hungry. We decided to stop at the Dogwood Diner for lunch.
After ordering, a man walked over to our table. As occasionally happens for me, since I wear a kippah every day, he exclaimed: “That’s a Yarmulke, right?”
I replied that indeed it was! I always enjoy interactions like this, where I get to briefly explain why it is meaningful for me to wear this funny-looking Jewish hat, but I was in for a surprise this time around…
This man was Sam, owner of the diner. He explained that his ex-wife was Jewish. Years ago, Sam sent his children to a Jewish school in Dallas. Sam knew all about the Jewish community of Palestine, TX. He told us about a Jewish cemetery located right down the road, explained that there had been a congregation nearby until about a decade ago, and had a number of other interesting stories to share with us.
But Sam left us with more than just stories. He provided us an important insight as well. After a few minutes of conversation, Sam said to us, “Ya know, I grew up Muslim, reading the Qur’an. Then I married a Jew and learned about the Torah. And recently I’ve learned more about Christianity, and I’ve read the Bible. They’re really not so different.”
I did not realize that, upon walking into the Dogwood Diner, I would hear such important words of wisdom. We get bogged down in the differences between some of our religious traditions sometimes. And let’s be clear – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and every other world religion really are unique, and to say simply “they’re all basically the same” would be misguided. But we do share quite a bit in common. Monotheism is a common tenet, and Moshe (or Moses, or Musa) is viewed as a prophet by all three.
It is easy to lose track of our similarities sometimes, as we focus on what separates Jews from other religions – and even what separates one particular group of Jews from another. But we really do possess a number of common characteristics with other world religions. Sometimes we just need someone to remind us of that. Thankfully, I had Sam.
We find wisdom in unexpected places. Of course, somebody had inspired me with their thoughts about religion while I was in Palestine, Texas. With a town-name like that, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised.
We’re nearing the end of Mensch Madness, sports fans!
There is a palpable sense of history here in our arena, as two underdogs – Devorah and Hannah – match up against one another for a place in the Mensch Madness championship. Since both come from the WIN Conference (Women in Nevi’im), they are quite familiar with one another. Over recent years, the instant-classics that Devorah and Hannah have participated in have created a strong rivalry, up there with the likes of Duke-North Carolina, Ohio State-Michigan, and Cain-Abel.
We’re spotting some basketball yarmulkes in the crowded stands. The intimidatingly-named “Hannah’s Horde,” the raucous fans that flock to all of Hannah’s basketball games, all seem as excited as ever – we even spotted one holding a sign reading “Hey Eli, who’s drunk now?” Eli made headlines earlier this season for accusing Hannah of drunkenness during the game. Hannah insisted that she was not drunk, just full of intensity for her mid-season run of success, and the Breathalyzer tests backed up her claim. Eli did not even make Mensch Madness this year, and to add insult to injury, he was embarrassingly eliminated from the first round of the Mensch Invitational Tournament by Balaam’s donkey.
Devorah’s supporters have fewer signs – but they seem to be a fairly musical bunch. Their mascot, a giant bumblebee, chosen because it is the meaning of Devorah’s name in Hebrew, is conducting the entire crowd in a unified rendition of Judges Chapter 5! “Uri, uri, D’vorah” (Awake, awake, O Deborah!) and “Uri, uri, dab’ri shir” (Awake, awake, strike up the chant!) echo through the arena in a deafening roar.
But alas, there is basketball to be played, and the game will be won on the court – not in the stands. The game tips off, and Devorah takes control. She instantly summons 10,000 men from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun to execute a full-court press, and Hannah is no match for them. By halftime, Devorah has notched a 37-21 lead, and Hannah is unsure what she can do to start a comeback.
In the locker room, Hannah consults with her assistant coaches – her husband Elkanah and son Samuel the prophet. They have some sound advice! Many years back, when Hannah was desperate for a son, she made a deal with God. She said that “If You will look upon the suffering of Your maidservant and remember me…and if You will grant Your maidservant a male child, I will dedicate him to the Lord for all the days of his life; and no razor shall ever touch his head.” She was rewarded with her son Samuel.
So Elkanah and Samuel advised her to make a similar vow today. Hannah summoned her strength. She closed her eyes, moved her lips, and stated “Oh God, if you will look kindly upon me and weaken the strength of Devorah my opponent, I will dedicate this court to the Lord, and no mop or broom shall ever touch its floor.”
God hears Hannah’s cries. God listens to every word, and God……reaches out a mighty hand…and…AND…God shakes God’s mighty finger at Hannah.
“Many years ago, your desire was for good. You wanted a son so that he may serve Me and serve My people. Today, your desire is for yourself. You wish Me to bring harm to Devorah so that you will win…a BASKETBALL GAME?! This thing is not good. Also, to refrain from mopping or sweeping such a court as this is unsanitary and a desecration of My name. This thing is not good. And you shall not win. ”
Despite the vigorous apologies from Hannah, Elkanah, and Samuel, Hannah returns to the court for the second half with little hope – and sure enough, Devorah comes away with a 72-50 blowout victory.
Who will win the FINAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME?! You’ll know when Monday, when Mensch Madness reaches its exciting finale!
 Judges 5. Jewish Publication Society Hebrew-English Tanakh. Philadelphia, 1999 (527).
 Judges 4. Ibid 520.
 1 Samuel 1. Ibid 572.