There’s been some pretty intense facial hair around the ISJL office lately. If you stopped by in May, you might exclaim: “What’s with the beards?!”
See, during the counting of the Omer, Rabbi Matt Dreffin, Lex Rofes, and Dan Ring decided to ignore the Southern humidity and grow out their beards for some very Jewish reasons.
Read below to find out why each of them finds this practice meaningful!
Why is counting the omer meaningful for me? Of all Jewish commandments, it simply lasts the longest. Jewish holidays almost never last longer than seven or eight days, and even the month of Elul, another spiritually rich period, is only 29 days. The Omer? 49 days of counting, contemplating, and for me – beard-growing.
Now, some might argue that doing something 49 times does not automatically imbue that action with meaning. But with the Omer, we have spiritual practices to help us with that. The physical presence of a beard on my face reminds me, with every last itch, that I am in the midst of a special time of year. The application of s’firot – attributes of God – to each of the 49 days, creates a powerful sense of uniqueness in every day.
Most importantly for me, the Omer creates an incredible feeling of anticipation for Shavuot. When that day, which I will have been anticipating for almost two months, finally arrives, I will feel as if I have earned that holiday. The Torah that I receive is not something I am merely given. It’s something I achieve.
I’ll be honest – I’ve had a short beard for the past year or so. I really enjoy having a beard, seeing how wild and unruly it can get before I feel the need to clean it up. Thus, for me, growing a beard for the Omer is great fun. It’s also quite meaningful. Within the context of the Omer, growing a long beard helps me connect to my Jewish past and present. When I look in the mirror, I can’t help but think about my male ancestors, their beards, and their bearded journeys that made it possible for me to be here today. No matter how different their lives and experiences might have been from my own, I’m pretty sure their beards looked quite similar to mine!
As my beard gets longer and longer, I realize that it becomes out of the ordinary; it stands out. I can’t just be one of those normal folks walking down the street. Instead, I become the guy with the unruly beard. I’m forced to realize what it’s like to be someone who can’t hide their differences. It helps me to obtain even a quick and cursory glance into what’s like to be “the other.” As American Jews, we can easily blend in. We can forget what it’s like be separate and what it’s like to stand out. It becomes easy to forget our Jewish (and human) responsibility to the world – our responsibility to be the best people we can be, and to treat people with respect and dignity no matter who they are or what they look like. My omer beard helps me to reconnect and rededicate myself to our sacred collective responsibility.
And did I mention it’s fun too?
With most Jewish rituals, I strive to see them each time in a new light. Ever since coming across a Tobi Kahn sculpture that focused on “Omer Counters,” I’ve been highly focused on finding unique ways of commemorating the season. Last year I made sure to follow the daily GIF on a Tumblr that used The Wire’s character, Omar, to notch each day that passed. This year, being so focused on preparing for our ISJL annual Passover Pilgrimage, I didn’t feel I had time to properly search out a new avenue to bring this piece of Judaism into my spiritual practice.
So, whilst driving to my first destination for my first seder, a quote from Ecclesiastes sprung to mind. “That which was is that which will be.” (Eccl 1:9) In other words, what “traditional” practice(s) had I not yet incorporated into my observance of the Omer? I rubbed the top of my head, still freshly shorn from 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, and it occurred to me: I had never grown out my beard! (Coincidentally, I forgot to pack any sort of razor or shaving cream).
What grew out of this practice was a lot more than just my beard. I found it reflected the experience we anticipate in a great way. As the beard lengthened, it became thicker, warmer, oppressive. We yearn toward the day when we will be able to cut it, just like we yearn to be at the end of the omer receiving the Torah on Shavuot. I also found that I was touching the growth around my mouth, the lengths of the mustache impeding everything. It made me think of all the ways we talk about the word of Torah being on our lips, the importance of our mouths to our Religion. While I’m glad to bid my beard bye-bye, the practice this year has been so fulfilling, I decided that instead of saying “shalom” (goodbye), I would say, “l’hit’ra-ot” (see you later) to my scruff.
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If you’re wondering whether or not Jews should send valentines, give chocolates, and generally “feel the love” when it comes to Valentine’s Day, you should read this excellent, nuanced piece on the topic. If you want to celebrate the Jewish Valentine’s Day (yes, there is one – kind of), that won’t be until late summer.
If, however, you have already decided that yes, you want to observe Valentine’s Day in some way, and by gosh, you want it to be a FUNNY VALENTINE (because… Barbra, obviously, y’all!), well, you’ve come to the right place.
I started with these:
I love you more than matzoh ball soup. #JewishValentines
Can I call you sometime? My Bubbe thinks I should. #JewishValentines
Be mine! (In a progressive, egalitarian sort of way. And of course I’m asking, not telling.) #JewishValentines
Then I also started thinking about what #SouthernJewishValentines might look like:
We may be a minority within a minority, but the majority of my heart is yours. #SouthernJewishValentines
When you said “shalom y’all,” I knew we were meant to be. #SouthernJewishValentines
We may disagree on SEC teams, but we’ll always have Shabbat. #SouthernJewishValentines
So, if you’re celebrating this holiday or just giggling at it, enjoy the day – and share any great #JewishValentines or #SouthernJewishValentines you come up with on social media, to make some of your fellow Funny Valentines keep on laughing!
The ISJL is closed December 25. So, you must be wondering… what does the staff of a Southern Jewish office do for Christmas?
You might be surprised.
With staff members from a variety of backgrounds, Jewish, Christian, multiple faiths within a family, people who chose Judaism, native Southerners, transplanted Southerners, and so on… Well, when we posed the question “What are you doing December 25?” to our staff, we figured we would get an interesting assortment of answers.
And so we did.
Here are some of them – enjoy!
“Chinese food and movies are always enjoyed in my family, but never more than on Christmas. Months in advance we keep our eyes open for previews of what movies will be out during the holidays.”
- Missy Goldstein, Education Fellow
“Like many Jewish children, I had always wanted a Christmas tree. When my husband Chris admitted that he had always had an artificial tree, I insisted that we go to the farm to chop down a real one! Just like in the movies! We also made that menorah out of plumbing pipe together. After our big Hannukah party in town, Chris and I spend Christmas Eve in Batesville, MS with this family. I did have a shocking moment my first Christmas in North Mississippi. After opening all the presents and sharing a family meal, I managed to convince his family to practice the ‘Jewish tradition’ of going to the movies on Christmas. Much to my surprise, the theater was packed, and not full of Jewish people! I had honestly believed it was only a Jewish thing.” - Rachel Myers, Museum / Special Projects Coordinator
“In my first job out of college, I worked for a glass studio in New Orleans. My boss liked that I was Jewish because I would keep the shop open until late on Christmas Eve. He then commanded me to go to the casino with him. So now, I go get an awesome meal (either sushi or Chinese food) and then hit up the closest casino. Vicksburg, anyone?” - Rabbi Matt Dreffin, Assistant Director of Education
“My Jewish family isn’t Southern, and my Southern family isn’t Jewish – I’m the crossover artist. Growing up, my family and I volunteered at a soup kitchen, then observed the ‘Chinese & A Movie’ ritual. Now, my fiance Danny and I have developed our own tradition: We have a Chanukah celebration at home (or this year, with my family in Michigan – thanks, Thanksgivukkah!); do some volunteering; then, on Dec. 23 we drive to Mobile, Alabama, for my grandfather’s birthday, and continue on to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, for Christmas with Danny’s parents. It’s a multi-city, multi-stop celebration.” - Beth Kander, Communications & Development Coordinator
“Every year, my family’s tradition has been to Milwaukee’s P.F. Chang’s and to a movie with a few other Jewish family friends. Rituals of our observance include ordering the famous “Great Wall of Chocolate” and arguing intensely over the quality of the movie after it’s over (last year, Silver Linings Playbook was especially controversial)!” - Lex Rofes, Education Fellow
So… how do YOU spend December 25? Tell us in the comments below!