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.
On Yom Kippur this year, the few remaining families of the 161-year old congregation of B’nai El in St. Louis, Missouri, entered the large sanctuary of Shaare Emeth. All of the members representing Shaare Emeth’s 1600-plus households simultaneously rose to their feet in honor of the Torahs held in the arms of B’nai El’s remaining few members. They, along with the Torahs, were being welcomed into their new spiritual home.
For those who may not know, B’nai El (established circa 1852) was the first Jewish congregation to build its sacred dwelling west of the Mississippi River. After a brief period of existence as an Orthodox congregation, B’nai El joined the Reform Movement, and in 1874 was among the founding congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
B’nai El was also my hometown congregation.
I say, “was,” because – as of this year – B’nai El closed its doors, due to a great decline in membership over recent decades. Facing this moment has not been easy for any of us. Yet, thanks to a dedicated board and a compassionate interim rabbi, the congregation of B’nai El made thoughtful, though difficult, decisions that brought great honor to its history, ensuring its lasting legacy.
These brave acts included offering me (as a son of the congregation) the complete contents of their Sisterhood Judaica Shop. As their Sisterhood president Maryellen McSweeny told me: “Just because we are closing doesn’t mean that we can’t still make a difference, an impact in the Jewish world. Please take these items to impact your work with small congregations in the South.”
In B’nai El’s name, I have done just that. During a Bat Mitzvah service in the Mississippi Delta, a brilliant young lady received a beautiful B’nai El tallit. Every time she wraps herself in it, the generations of B’nai El embrace her. During a funeral in Alabama, the mourners received a special yahrzeit candle holder. Every year they light it, memories of both their loved one and the congregation will be illuminated.
And, during a Shabbat service with the small college town congregation of Am Shalom in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I noticed that the Torah was without a yad for reading. Upon my return to the office, I went to the ISJL closet filled with B’nai El’s generous donations. From it, I pulled out a yad. I sent it to Am Shalom with the message, “May it continue to point y’all forward with God’s loving touch in this coming year.”
Am Shalom’s president, Laura Jacobs, wrote the following to Maryellen McSweeny in response:
We very much appreciate you sending us your yad. We are a very small congregation of about 15 families. We meet about one time per month for social and religious events. We are lay-led and so appreciate Rabbi Klaven and all he brings to our small congregation. As you know, he is a special person, making Judaism come alive for the young and old. We are blessed he chose to share your yad with us. Know that we will put it to good use. I’ve attached the pictures of some of our members on Yom Kippur with the yad on our Torah. L’shana tovah to you!
What I have come to appreciate even more through connecting some of the remaining items from my hometown congregation of B’nai El to other Jewish communities in need is that our story does not end when we find a place to call home. Rather, just as it was for our ancestors, coming home marks the next chapter of our development, as we continue to honor our history and live our legacy.
Image above: B’nai El’s Yad brings new blessings to its new home at Am Shalom.