2018-04-25 / Religion Column

Jewish and American holidays rightfully frame our lives

Congregation Beth Tikvah

Parashat Emor Lev. 21:1-24:23

As an American, I look forward to Memorial Day. In the past, I have used this time to visit family in Massachusetts, or to go to a friend’s beach house on Long Beach Island, or even once to host a BBQ at my own home. For the last number of years, I have instead opted to spend Memorial Day in a friend’s backyard. There, we celebrate the coming warm weather and the concurrent opening of his beautiful pool. As we move closer to Memorial Day, I imagine the smell of the chlorine, the taste of the chips and guacamole, and the roars of laughter from friends whom I don’t get to see as often during the colder months. For me, Memorial Day marks a feeling through which I note the beginning of the summer season. I revel in the uniquely American experience of Memorial Day.

Shortly after Memorial Day, I begin to envision July 4, and how I will want to mark America’s independence. American customs and rituals around holidays like Memorial Day and July 4 shape the rhythm of life for Americans, and are particular to the American experience. So, too, does the Jewish calendar shape the rhythm of life for Jews, and are particular to the Jewish experience. In Parashat Emor, the basic outline of our cycle of holiday celebrations is detailed.

In Parashat Emor, Leviticus 23 begins with Adonai speaking to Moses saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: The appointed seasons of Adonai, which you shall proclaim to be Holy convocations, even these are My appointed seasons.” (Leviticus 23:2). Adonai then tells us that we are to hold as sacred an important list of days and explains the basic biblical customs for those days. Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot are all described. The biblical holidays are the foundation for our Jewish calendar; Adonai describes them as “My appointed seasons.” Participating in these holiday observances is an act bigger than ourselves. Just as we, in our kishkes, know what the American holidays drive Americans to do and to feel, so too the Jewish holidays drive the Jew to certain feelings and actions.

Mordechai Kaplan (z”l), the founder of Reconstructionist thought, affirmed that as American- Jews, we, a form of what he called “hyphenated Americans,” simultaneously live in two civilizations. He argued for increased confluence between these two identities, with one positively influencing the other. Just as, for example, he felt it appropriate for Irish-Americans to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day by parading on the streets, so too he felt that Jews should take to dancing with the Torah in the streets for Simchat Torah. He envisioned a world in which Jews integrated American ideals into their Jewish practices, and Jewish ideals into their raising up of American practices. The two identities were, for Kaplan, inseparable.

Separating ourselves from either side of the Jewish-American hyphen is impossible. We recognize the ways in which our lives are shaped by these core aspects of our identities, and we negotiate with ourselves, our families, our friends, and our synagogues, between which identity to raise up higher at any given time. As a rabbi and an educator, this is the framing that I bring to all questions of Jewish communal participation. Rather than lament that Jews are not participating in Jewish life, I recognize that perhaps the Jewish community has not made a compelling enough case to the American-Jew (who is trying earnestly to negotiate between the two identities) to raise up the Jewish side of the hyphen.

Parashat Emor provides a gateway to raising it up. Through actively touching base with the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, one immediately senses an increased connection to Judaism, Jewish practice, and Jewish community. If you feel disconnected, celebrate some holidays! Mark Shabbat in a new way that works for you and your family. Dance on Simchat Torah! Toss frogs at your Passover Seder! Get into the mindset of self-evaluation leading up to the High Holidays. These times frame the lives of Jews, and in Parashat Emor, we are provided an open entry-point. It is there for you to use.

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