Rabbis share wisdom for the season

Rabbi's Corner: Appreciating the Season



During this time of year, some Jews wonder how to navigate the “holiday season.” Folks ask important questions, such as: What do I say to my children when they ask if they can have pretty lights and a tree? Do I accept the invitation to Aunt Betty’s Christmas party? How do we Jews compete with the enormity of Christmas? What can I do to make sure that my children don’t feel left out or less than?
When answering these types of questions, I usually share that my children attend a Christmas party every year with their cousins. I’ve been asked, “How could you allow this? Aren’t you jeopardizing your children’s religious identity in the future?” My answer: “No.” 
I learned how to talk with my children about the difference between Chanukah and Christmas from my teacher, Dr. Ron Wolfson, who wrote:
“Early childhood educators tell us that one of the most crucial stages in socialization occurs when a child is between 18 and 30 months old and attends another child’s birthday party … To help children begin to distinguish between what’s mine and what’s his/hers. Toddlers must learn the difference between celebrating one’s own birthday and celebrating someone else’s.”
Thus, many Jewish educators will advise parents to give their children who want to celebrate Christmas a particularly important message: Christmas is someone else’s party, not ours. Just as we can appreciate someone else’s birthday celebration and be happy for them, we can celebrate Christmas with family and friends and know it isn’t our holiday. 
Many parents make a perfectly understandable, but incomplete, leap. “Christmas is for Christians. They have Christmas. We are Jewish. We have Chanukah.” Some go further and suggest that Chanukah is even better than Christmas. “Christmas is only one day. Chanukah is for eight!” So, the parental anxiety leads to the teaching that our party lasts longer, offers more presents and is just as beautiful.
Of course, the problem is that it just isn’t true. Chanukah cannot hold a candle to Christmas. Chanukah is a minor event in the Jewish holiday cycle and has never, until recently, been viewed as a central celebration for the Jewish people. Therefore, the customs and ceremonies surrounding Chanukah pale by comparison to those of Christmas – which is one of the two major holidays of Christianity.
The answer to the child is incomplete. “We’re Jewish – we have Chanukah” is only the beginning of the response. “We’re Jewish, and we have Chanukah … and a full year of special holidays to celebrate – most importantly, Shabbat every week.”
The child who has experienced the building of a sukkah will not feel deprived of trimming a tree. The child who has participated in a meaningful Passover Seder will not feel deprived of Christmas dinner. The child who has paraded with the Torah on Simchat Torah, planted trees at Tu B’Shevat, brought first fruits at Shavuot, given mishloach manot at Purim, and welcomed the Shabbat with candles and wine and challah by the time they are 3 years old will understand that to be Jewish is to be enriched by a calendar brimming with joyous celebrations.
Then, of course, there are parents who believe that the December lesson, that Jews are different than almost everybody else, is an inescapable part of being Jewish, unless you live in Israel. There is an immense value in being unique, different, valuable in your own right. The great promise of religious freedom has created the diversity of culture that characterizes the free world. When we live side by side with people of other religions, we must respect and appreciate their customs, arts and traditions. In fact, I believe it is a Jewish religious imperative to teach our children to appreciate the beauty of diversity in God’s world. 
What does appreciation mean? It means that there is nothing wrong with enjoying the beauty of someone else’s celebration. If we are strong in our Jewish commitments, there is little danger that appreciating the warmth and beauty of another’s holiday will threaten our fundamental identity. But appreciation does not mean assimilation … because assimilation potentially leads to confusion and loss of identity.
My children understand that even though they celebrate with their cousins, it is not their holiday – just like they can go to someone else’s birthday and know that it is not their party. I believe that as long as my home is rooted in the Jewish living, then one evening a year with family, appreciating Christmas lights or knowing about Santa Claus will not harm the Jewish adults my children are becoming. 
I hope your Chanukah celebrations were wonderful and you are sending blessings to all our neighbors who Rabbi Gary Ezra Oren is the  senior rabbi of Congregation Shaarie Torah, a Conservative synagogue in Northwest Portland.  He and his wife, Sharone, have three children.celebrate Christmas.

Chaplain's Corner: How can we end our walking hibernation?

I have been thinking a lot about winter, which officially begins on Dec. 21. If I could channel my inner bear, part of me wants to hibernate. I want to find a place I am safe, lie down and sleep for a while. 
This desire makes perfect sense. To varying degrees, I am still dealing with COVID fatigue. These past months have been physically, spiritually and psychologically exhausting. And yet, COVID restrictions have begun to lift. As Community Chaplain, I have gained greater in-person access to hospitals and retirement communities. But that has revealed an unanticipated challenge. After all of these months of virtual isolation, how can I access the physical and mental reserves needed to make this much-anticipated transition?
To find answers, I did a little research on bears and hibernation. I learned that when bears awake after hibernating, they still exist for weeks in a state of “walking hibernation.” (I know I’m getting ahead of myself, since winter has not even begun yet.) The bears’ bodies for a while remain in torpor, a state of reduced bodily activity. Their time of hibernation was not completely restful. They are still sleep deprived and fatigued. They use this time of walking hibernation to ramp up their appetites and exercise neglected muscles. 
I can relate to what bears go through with this post-hibernation transition. In a way, the communication and interaction skills I used before COVID have atrophied. These abilities are like underused muscles that are now out of shape. As a result, I need to be patient with myself and with others as we relearn how to be in person again. How do we greet one another? How do we listen? How do we pay attention to body language? When should we stop talking and create space for others to join in? How do we bring an interaction to a close? How do we say goodbye?
Like a bear, we will be in walking hibernation for a while. That said, we have learned how resilient we can be over the past nearly two years. We know we have the ability to heal and become strong and healthy in the face of almost every COVID-related challenge. We have proven how adaptable we are.
In the coming weeks, let us awake from our walking hibernation and transition from virtual to in-person interactions. We can explore the programs and services returning to communal organizations like the Mittleman Jewish Community Center, synagogues and the Eastside Jewish Commons, among others. We have many opportunities to worship, socialize, study, exercise and share a meal – together. 
Another aspect of ending our walking hibernation is having something to look forward to. Let’s plan in-person social gatherings. We can do something as simple as meeting for a cup of coffee to something as sophisticated as a New Year’s celebration. (How I miss gathering with others to watch college football. Bowl season is right around the corner.)
As our COVID hibernation (hopefully) draws to a close, let’s enjoy getting our physical and communication skills back in shape. Let’s not be afraid to indulge ourselves. Let’s remember we’re never too old to play and act like kids. Let’s be patient with ourselves and others, and most of all, let’s have fun.

Rabbi Barry Cohen is the Jewish community chaplain of the Greater Portland area. chaplain@jewishportland.org.


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