“Look… a Jewish home!”
As a small child, I found mezuzah spotting to be a very exciting game. We were the only Jewish family where I grew up, and anytime I spotted a mezuzah on a door frame (on the door frame of another resident’s apartment at my Bubbe’s retirement building over in Toledo, Ohio, for example) I was thrilled. It was like a little clue, a code for those in the know.
Spot a mezuzah, find a family like yours.
Especially when families “like yours” are few and far between, there’s something special about finding each other. From a very young age, I understood that Jewish families could look very different, but that there were still certain things we shared—and for me, the mezuzah was one of the most tangible of ritual items, alerting us to one another.
I haven’t lived in a truly rural area since I was 17 years old. But as an adult, I’ve still mostly lived in smaller cities where houses with mezzuzot were still few and far between. When I traveled as an Education Fellow, or went to a friend’s home in Mississippi for a Shabbat dinner, I always paused to smile and sometimes even kiss that little marker on the door that signified I was at another Jewish home. In a small town, it matters even more.
There’s something powerful and welcoming for me about the mezuzah, something that serves as a physical reminder of some of the most important elements of our culture. The tilting-inward, inviting guests into your space; the words within, “the watchwords of the faith,” from the beginning of the Shema. While many aspects of my personal Jewish life and observance have shifted, I have always had this symbol upon my door.
Recently, my husband and I moved to a new place. As we began unpacking and getting set up, my husband—who was not raised in a Jewish home, incidentally—said: “Hey, where’s the mezuzah?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “One of these boxes. We’ll find it eventually.”
“We have to find it now!” He insisted. “Otherwise people won’t know it’s a Jewish home!”
In the sea of boxes surrounding us, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. But we found the mezuzah, and mounted it. He was right—the other boxes could wait; we needed to get that little guy in place. Because now, anyone else who might be mezuzah spotting could see our door frame, and perhaps feel that same flutter of excitement and connection.
Spot a mezuzah, find a family like yours.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
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!
Below, Michele Schipper explains why she lets her kids trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out “Why I Don’t Let My Kids Trick-or-Treat.”
What happens when we post a photo, in October, of an Education Fellow reading some students a book about witches, while wearing a witch hat? An immediate assumption by many that the religious school students are celebrating Halloween – followed by a lot of strong opinions shared on Facebook!
First, to explain the picture: The Education Fellow was reading a story from Yiddish folklore, The Rabbi and the 29 Witches by Marilyn Hirsh. It’s a wonderful children’s story, and as the synopsis describes: “Once a month, when the moon is full, twenty-nine of the meanest, scariest, ugliest, wickedest witches that ever lived come out of their cave to terrify the villagers . . . until one day the wise rabbi invents a plan to rid his village of those wicked witches forever. The rabbi’s clever plan works–with hilarious results!”
The book has nothing to do with Halloween – and had we posted this photo of the Education Fellow reading this book in January (which we easily could have, as they share this story on the road throughout the year!), I don’t think anyone would have had Halloween on their mind. But even still, the wide range of reactions to the photo was surprising; especially how many negative responses were shared. Several of us began thinking about Judaism, the celebration of Halloween and our own personal practices.
Despite Halloween’s religious origins, most Americans consider Halloween to be a national tradition, without the attachment of any real religious meaning. Many American Jews have adopted this tradition as their own with the understanding that the holiday has become wholly secular. Although I know that Purim is indeed the Jewish holiday where you get to “dress up,” I grew up and experienced both Halloween and Purim, and my children have gotten that same experience. My sister, whose birthday is October 30, had at least 1 Halloween themed birthday party.
I also remember when I was about 8 years old, I was sick during Halloween and couldn’t go trick or treating with my friends and family, so my Southern Jewish mother let me “trick or treat” in the house, knocking on all of my family member’s bedroom doors, so they would give me candy and I wouldn’t feel that I had missed out…
That important feeling of being included, of not missing out and being part of the larger community, is important to us. My husband and I have enjoyed “fall festival” activities with our kids; going to the pumpkin patch, carving pumpkins, deciding on costumes– and of course, my husband is famous (infamous) for laying claim to his favorite candy from the trick or treating “loot”. I don’t worry that my kids are confused. They are now almost all teenagers, and do not seem to have suffered any adverse effects, and neither have I. Halloween did no damage to our Jewish identity.
So I say, enjoy Halloween – and make sure you’re the house that gives out the good candy.