Letting go of Christmas.

Every year, like clockwork, the holidays come. The advertisements show images of lights, warmth, and a general sense of happiness, but this is far from the truth for many. With each passing year, the holiday season seems less and less festive. To the point where many are not partaking at all. For those who choose to do so, this is a relief from the unnecessary stress of Christmas.

And then there are people like me, who trade one holiday for another.

Christmas was one of my favorite holidays as a kid. I have so many fond memories of decorating the tree, getting and giving gifts, and the time spent with family on that special day. Of course, a lot of this is rose-tinted nostalgia, as things probably weren’t as great as I remember. As time went on, family issues and drama would bubble to the surface, and the holidays became less and less fun every year. With the passing of my dad last year, I think it marked the end of any kind of Christmas which would resemble that of my childhood.

With my conversion to Judaism, this brings forth some newer challenges. There are plenty of Jews (converts and those born into it) who celebrate Christmas with their non-Jewish family and friends, but there are plenty of Jews who think doing such things will bring forth the end of Judaism. Regardless, my idea is to not alienate my family and to spend time with them when the holiday season rolls around.

After this year, I don’t think letting Christmas go will be too big of a challenge.

Along with the aforementioned decreasing festiveness and aspiring Jewishness, the fact is that not becoming involved with the hyper-commercialization of the holiday was a nice change of pace. I still bought gifts for family and friends, but most of my holiday was spent lighting candles and singing songs. Not fighting crowds (and potentially other people) over some hot toy of the year that would become last years news. Letting go of Christmas is more than just the religious aspect of the celebrated birth of Jesus by Christians, but also the stress and commercialization which have had a stranglehold on the holiday season for decades, If not over a century. For a holiday that stresses goodwill towards others and charity, people seem to forget that aspect. Then again, I suppose that’s not shocking at all.

Are there still things that I remember fondly growing up? Sure there are. Will I still visit my family when the holiday comes around? Absolutely. But in the end, Christmas is just another day. The holiday season is still about charity and giving, and Christmas doesn’t have a monopoly on that. There are many who say that I don’t have to give up Christmas just because I’m becoming Jewish and they are technically correct. However, it’s not a matter of “having to.” It’s just the natural consequence of years of growing apathy towards the holiday and incidentally converting to another religion with its own holiday.  No bad blood or bitterness. It’s just what it is.

Besides, Chinese food and a movie are a fun tradition and might as well be a mitzvah for American Jews.

 

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Hanukkah: This is not the holiday you’re looking for.

In two days,  the first night of Hanukkah 2017 begins. This will be my first time celebrating it and excited doesn’t begin to describe how I feel.

But what if I were to tell you that Hanukkah isn’t the Jewish Christmas. Like, at all.

American Jews (typically non-Orthodox) have this tendency to want to have their holidays to compete with the larger holidays. In Spring, when Easter and Passover take place, some try and to market it as a “celebration of life” akin to Easter, Growing up, I’ve heard people erroneously say that Passover is the Jewish Easter. Which, again, it’s not. Sure, both take place in spring and have their own celebrations, but they still have plenty of differences.

It’s the same with Hanukkah and Christmas.

In Eastern Europe, most Jews were quite poor. As such, Hanukkah was usually a very simple holiday. But in 19th century America, the commercialization of Christmas would also make its way to Hanukkah celebrations. In a country where consumerism and prosperity took hold, and when many Jews (native and immigrant alike) lived in such a culture, it only makes sense that Hanukkah celebrations would reflect this. Trees, lights, and gift-giving would eventually become common among many Jewish families when the holiday came around. Think of it as a cultural Keeping Up With the Joneses. Of course, most Hanukkah celebrations didn’t 100% resemble Christmas celebrations, but the commercialization was still there.

Now, Hanukkah is a rather minor holiday. Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur are much bigger and important holidays for Jews. But the general timing and cultural surroundings of Hanukkah in the United States ensured that it would become major-by-proxy.

The traditional celebrations of Hanukkah aren’t even that lavish. You light the appropriate candles, say a prayer, sing, eat fried foods (latkes are common among Ashkenazi Jews), and perhaps give a gift of gelt (chocolate coins). Hell, the story of Hanukkah in 1 and 2 Maccabees isn’t even in the canonical Hebrew Bible, and most of the famous stories (such as the oil miracle) come from the Talmud. The oil story isn’t even that important. Hanukkah is usually a celebration of the Maccabean revolt (167 – 160 BCE) against the Hellenistic influence in Jewish life and the taking back of the temple in Jerusalem. So – arguably – it shouldn’t be about trying to imitate larger cultural holidays, but celebrate the perseverance and traditions of the faith and culture that have endured for thousands of years.

In the end, the commercialization of Hanukkah isn’t going to go away just like the commercialization of Christmas isn’t going to go away. How people celebrate is ultimately a personal, cultural, and familial thing. If you want a Hanukka bush and lots of gifts? Go for it? Want a simple celebration of only singing and lighting candles? Go for it.

Let’s just make sure that we celebrate it because it is tradition and custom. And not an attempt in out-Christmasses the neighbors.

 

Israel’s Jewish Demographics.

All the way over in the middle east, there is a small, totally-not-controversial, seriously everyone just loves them country called Israel. Officially the world’s only Jewish State, it has an extremely long and complicated political and cultural history which more often times than not riles extreme emotions for both the “pro” and “anti” sides. With many saying that it is the historical home of the Jewish people and thus has a right to exist, while others say that it is no better than apartheid South Africa.

While the history and nuances of the conflict would no doubt be an interesting – not to mention long and controversial – post, I want to instead focus on a certain demographic within Israel’s borders. Namely the Jewish demographics.

While Israel is touted as the world’s official Jewish state, as it indeed is the only nation with a majority of Jews, it is technically secular. Judaism is much more than a religion; it is also an ethnicity and a culture, depending on who you ask. As such, what it means to be Jewish to one person will be totally different to another. In general, there are 4 broad categories of Jews who live in Israel.

Disclaimer. I am not Israeli nor have I ever been to Israel. I just happen to find religious demographics of countries to be an interesting topic. I will be making generalizations in order to give the most – if ultimately surface – amount of information. While what I’m going to say is true, there are many, many subgroups within these 4 categories, and nothing is ever as simple as it seems. If I were to go over every single Jewish group in this country and go over every minute detail of their observance and contributions to their country, I would have to write a college thesis. And if there is one thing about me, I am not a scholar.

With that said, let’s start with:

 

Haredim

Comprising of roughly 9% of Israel’s Jewish population, “Haredim” is a catch-all term for Jews who have a super-duper-mega-ultra strict observance of Torah and Halakha. Additionally, they stand out from the crowd because they have a way of dressing that separates themselves from the rest of Israeli society and are easily the most religiously observant group of Jews in Israel. With a whopping 95% saying that religion is very important in their lives, 76% who pray daily, and virtually none who travel on the Sabbath.

Haredim tend to be controversial in Israel for a number of reasons, but the most well known is their general refusal to serve in the IDF. You see, many Haredi groups are rather ambivalent to the State of Israel. This is for a number of reasons, but the two more common ones are because it’s secular and wasn’t established by the Messiah. Plus there is a general belief that their prayers for the country do more good than joining the military. At the time of the establishment of Israel, the Haredi population was given exemption from military service. However, given their extremely high birth rates, they’re slated to be around 10% of Israel’s population soon. This conscription exemption has built a lot of resentment from other Israelis and in 2014, there was a legislative vote to end the exemption and there has been a – how do I say – strong reaction from Haredim.

As far as I’m able to tell, this is still an ongoing debate in the government, and I will be the first to admit my ignorance on this subject.

Of course, there are Haredim who do enlist in the IDF, and there is a fair amount of diversity within the Haredim, especially when it comes to the Hasidic groups.

 

Datim

Up next are the Datim, who make up roughly 13% of Israel’s Jewish population. Like the Haredim, they are a very religious group, but there are significant differences.

To begin, they are far more integrated into Israeli Society. While the Haredim are likely to be found studying Torah for the majority of the day and having large families, Datim are more likely to have secular educations and career. Yet, they are just as likely to be observant of Torah and Mitzvot. I suppose the closest North American equivalent would be Modern Orthodoxy.

With that said, there is a bit of a spectrum among the Datim. While most would fall in the Modern Orthodox category, there is a group of Datim who are socially or theologically closer to the Haredim called Chardalim (which means mustard, btw). Likewise, there are Datim who call themselves “Orthodox”, but will drive to Shul on Saturday or use electronics.

Datim are also more likely to identify as Zionists than the Haredim. They, by in large, serve their IDF conscriptions and as a result, sometimes have the label of “National Religious” given to them.

 

Masortim

The Masortim are an interesting group. Comprising of about 29% of Israeli Jews, they are what would be called “traditional.” Which basically means that they comprise any of the grey area between Orthodox and secular. At first, I thought the Conservative Movement here in the US was an accurate equivalent, but Israelis have told me that is not correct.

The level of observance and belief among the Masortim are probably the most diverse of all the Jewish groups in Israel. To give you an idea, a Masortim who may not believe in God will still follow mitzvot, because it is culturally important to do so. While a Masorti who does believe in God may not find religion to be that important in their lives.  About Half say that religion is somewhat important to their lives. While around 30-ish percent say it’s very important, and 16% say it’s not important at all. About 21% pray daily, 32% attend weekly synagogue, and 41% don’t travel on the Sabbath.

In recent years, there has been a somewhat slow decline in those who identify as Masorti, but this may be due in part to the polarization of religious belief in recent decades.

 

Hilonim

By far the largest group of Jews in Israel are the Chilonim, who in simplest terms are “secular.”  They more or less see their Judaism as a part of their ancestry and culture, while very few see it as a part of their religious life.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all Jews who identify as Chilonim don’t believe in G-d. Many Secular Jews do believe in a higher power, or even in God, but it’s not necessarily a huge part of their lives. In fact, only 2% of Secular Jews say that Religion is important in their lives at all.  Despite this, over 80% of Secular Jews in hold Passover seders and a little over half at least light Sabbath candles.

Chilonim are the only Jewish group in Israel who Israel identity came first before their Jewish Identity (around 59%). Nearly all Chilonim drive or travel on the Sabbath, and the majority (94%) do not think that public transport should be closed on the Sabbath. Just like the Haredim and Datim are likely to marry within their own groups, so do the Chilonim have higher rates of marriage with other secular Israelis.

 

So there you have it: a quick rundown of the 4 Jewish demographics in Israel. Like I said earlier, this wasn’t really meant to be all-encompassing or super detailed, but more or less a general introduction. Being that I myself am an aspiring Jew and find things like population demographics interesting, I hoped it was satisfactory. Who knows? If you’re ever at a dinner party and the Topic of Israel comes up, maybe this will give you enough information to fake a conversation.

Maybe in the future I’ll do one for American Judaism?

_______________________________________________________

Sources:

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/08/in-israel-jews-are-united-by-homeland-but-divided-into-very-different-groups/

http://www.pewforum.org/2016/03/08/israels-religiously-divided-society/

Basic beginners guide to Talmud.

The holidays have come and gone (they went great, btw. Struggling on Yom Kippur notwithstanding), the trimester at the school I’m interning at only has a few weeks t ogo, and I have about a month left for the semester at my university. You know what that means?

Trying to get back on a writing schedule. Which should finally happen this time as I have quite a number of topics lined up.

So one of the things I’ve been doing in what little spare time I’ve had is continuing to be a part of my synagogue community. In addition to attending Shabbat services, I’ve been meeting with the rabbis for study, going to special events, and just the other night started going to a Talmud class. The main reason being that, as someone converting to Judaism who already had a fair knowledge of the religion, I had absolutely no idea what Talmud was. Is it scripture? What are the two Talmuds? The heck is a Gemara?

Well gather around boys and girls, and I will depart surface-level knowledge which I have acquired only in the past few days.

Before Talmud can be discussed, we should talk about Torah. In the Jewish tradition, the Torah is the first five books of the bible. Those five books being Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. According to whatever Jewish tradition one refers to, Torah was either revealed as it is at Sinai, written over the course of a few centuries, or something in the middle. Either way, these 5 books were written and eventually became codified into what is called the “Written Torah.”

However, there is an oral tradition in Judaism as well. The sages and rabbis of the past would interpret varying laws that weren’t explicitly found in the written Torah.  Among the properties of the Oral Torah are interpretations involving rituals, purity laws, the Sabbath, and civil law. According to the Orthodox, the Oral Torah was revealed to Moses along with the Written Torah and thus there has been an unbroken chain of interpretation since the time of Sinai.

Starting in the early first century CE, Judaism began to go through a major shift. The temple was no longer in use after being destroyed by the Romans, and Jews dispersed across the known world. In the time after the temple’s destruction, the preservation of the Jewish tradition was at stake, and the Oral Law had to be written and codified. Around 200 CE, the Oral Torah was redacted into what is known as the Mishna.  The Mishna itself has six orders: Zeraim (seeds), Moed (festivals), Nashaim (women), Nezikim (damages), Kodashim (holy things), and Toharot (Purities).  Each of these orders has several tractates, with 62 in total. Each of the tractates are further broken down into chapters and verses. The rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishna are the Tannaim.

Up next is the Gemara. In essence (but also greatly simplified), the Gemara is commentary on the Mishna; done by various Rabbis and Sages in the first few centuries CE. There are in fact two Gemara: the Yerushalmi Gemara complied from around 200 – 500 CE, and the much larger Babylonian Gemara complied around 200 – 600 CE. The purpose of the Gemara was to further expand on certain laws and practices in the Mishna that may have been unclear, as well as to give examples to further explain a certain verse or passage found in Mishnah. Although Halakha (Law) is greatly expounded upon, Aggadah (narrative stories) are also integral to both the Yerushalmi and Babylonian Gemara.

With their powers combined, both the Mishna and Gemara become the Talmud. Talmud has had many commentaries through the past millennium (so it’s commentary of a commentary). Including Rashi and Rabbenu Hananel. This is a great representation of the intellectual history and prowess of the Jewish tradition. There is no verse too minute. No opinion to detailed. If someone has an opinion, by G-d there will be 5 others weighing in, adding on, and disagreeing with it.

Of course, this is all very surface level and there is so much more to Talmud than what I gave, but it is a very extensive subject. I could literally write about nothing but the Talmud and wouldn’t complete it all before my inevitable death. But I hope this gives just a small taste of what Talmud is: the basis of what Rabbinical Judaism has become today, and the harborer of the many traditions that millions around the world engage with.

Happy (late) New Year!

Happy Belated New Years everyone!

This past week was Rosh Hashanah, and thus we entered the Jewish year 5778. The first of the “high holy days”, Rosh Hashanah begins what is often called the time of remembrance or repentance. Unlike the American New Year counterpart of drinking and staying up until midnight, Rosh Hashanah is a time of preparing for the day of atonement (Yom Kippur).

Just like how many people make New Year’s resolutions to better themselves in the upcoming year, Jews do something similar. We make promises – to ourselves and to HaShem – to better ourselves, our relationship to Him, and to others. In the ten day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we strive to be more active in prayer (both community and personal), loving our fellow as ourselves, and returning to a more G-d centered mindset. This accumulates with Yom Kippur; the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.”

This was my first High Holiday service at a shul and, while it did have some parts that seemed to last forever, it was such an abundantly joyous experience. This officially marks the first full Jewish year that I will be experiencing. All of the ups, downs, joys, and struggles now truly begin at this moment. As the shofar echoed in the shul, I felt HaShem’s presence. There is no reason to go back now.

Let’s just see if Yom Kippur goes well.

Whoever and wherever you are, Jewish or not, may your year be sweet and of blessings.

Conversion classes & life update.

The past couple of months have been quite busy as far as my personal life goes. I know I usually say that whenever I go radio silent for stretches of time, but I think this time is more legitimate than others. At least, I would like to think so. I know I’m not so great at keeping a consistent writing schedule, but now that things are more organized I can finally make one?

Anyway, so what’s been going on in my life?

First off, conversion classes have finally begun. It’s expected that the whole process will take nearly one full liturgical Jewish year, where the students can experience all major holidays and Shabbats. Around summer of next year will be the final steps. Namely the Beit Din, hatafat dam brit (taking a drop of blood in lieu of a full circumcision),  and immersion in a mikvah. After this occurs, in accordance with Conservative halakha, I will be a full member of the Jewish people. This is a day that I eagerly await.

But of course, things usually aren’t always so easy to get to. The conversion classes are on Thursday evenings; occurring the same time as an online class required for my Masters degree.  I tried to see if there could be a workaround, but there was no such luck. The bright side is that next semester the online class can negotiate a different time slot for the meetings, and the rabbis are willing to meet with me one on one. Until then, I will continue with the required readings and be a part of the congregation. Not ideal, but it is the best option with what we have.

Speaking of the online class, it’s the one related to the internship required for my degree. a couple of weeks ago, I was finally brought on as a teaching intern at an independent high school. My goal is to eventually lead a class on my own, but realistically that probably won’t happen until the third trimester. Until then, I’m primarily observing and assisting teachers in any way I can. For this trimester, I’m sitting in Buddhism, Psychology, Pre-Colonial American History, and World War One classes. Quite the diverse catalog for such a small school, but so far I’m really enjoying the school’s methodology, as well as the student body and staff.

Beyond that, most of my personal life outside of school-related things are in relation to my journey into Judaism. The most direct venture being that I’m getting to know the greater Jewish community in the area. Last Friday Shabbat I went to a Modern Orthodox synagogue and got to know the rabbi and some of the congregants. In fact, I’ll be meeting up with the MO rabbi for a late lunch tomorrow to get to know him and the community more. Aside from that, I’m planning on eventually visiting a local Chabad house and the Hebrew Day School (which is primarily run by Haredim). Yeah, I have quite a few personal and theological issues with the Ultra-Orthodox, but they are still a part of the Jewish family tree.

I’m also planning on a trip to Israel. Around the time my conversion process ends will be around the same time my internship ends. From that moment, I’ll have 2 months until my final semester at university begins. Why not use that time to travel to the Holy Land? Granted, it will be rather expensive and I technically can go anytime, but I don’t know the next time I will be able to travel. Besides, fresh off the heels of becoming Jewish seems a good time as any to visit Israel. So why not, eh?

I promise to try and update more. In fact, I actually have a bunch of topics written down and plan on using those as topics to post. Perhaps once a week or so should be enough? Sometimes life does get in the way, but I don’t plan on this blog going bust like countless others of mine in the past have.

Shalom.

Why I left Hinduism.

Once again going back to a comment on a previous post, an interesting question was posited. A commenter inquired how they found it curious when people say they “no longer believe in Hinduism.” Going on to say that Hinduism comprises of many religions and that one can completely change their beliefs and still be in the fold of Hinduism. Versus, say, Christianity, where one can change denominations, but the essence of the religion stays the same.

On one hand, that is correct. Hinduism isn’t one religion. It’s more or a less a culture of religions under a single label. You can be a Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakta, Vedantist, IndoPagan, or practice tribal folk religion and still be under the label of “Hindu.” You can even be completely divorced from notions of God or anything spiritual and still be a Hindu. It’s every bit as much of a culture as it is a religion. A “way of life” as some might say.

However, personally, it’s not 100% correct to access Hinduism in this way. The average Hindu, while having differing beliefs about gurus, gods, and rituals, will share some core values. Karma, reincarnation, and the Vedas immediately come to mind. If one starts off as an Advaita Vedantin, and becomes a Shiva worshipper, they will most likely still believe in the Divine origin of the Vedas and in samsara. It isn’t a total free-for-all within the Hindu religion. Of course, there are many paths in Hinduism which don’t share these (Lingayats, Brahmo Samaj, and many tribals religions come to mind), but most Hindus will share some commonalities.

Conversely, there is a lot more diversity of thought within western religions than many people give them credit for. Within Christianity alone there are Catholics whose mysticism far outweighs the legalism of the Vatican, the Swedenborgians, and those who straight up deny the divinity of Jesus. There’s also Sufis and Ismailis in Islam, as well as Kabbalah and Neo-Hasidism in Judaism. While they may not be as diverse as Hinduism, like Hinduism they do share some core values. The belief in One God and revelation to Prophets being the biggest ones.

I say all of this to illustrate that it isn’t always as simple as “look at all of this diversity in Hinduism” and “Western religions are a monolith.” There are many reasons why one may go from west to east. Or, in my case, west to east and back to the west. So, with all of this said, why did I leave Hinduism?

 

I don’t believe in the divine origin of the Vedas.

Easy enough. I don’t think the Vedas were literally sung/revealed to the Rishis and thus had no hand written origins. To be fair, I also don’t believe the Torah as it currently is was given to Moses at Sinai. Even if I believe scriptures are divinely inspired, they were still written down and translated by fallible humans. I’ve gotten into my fair share of debates with Hindus, because I dared say that the Vedas were pinned by humans.

 

It’s far too connected to Indian culture.

I’m not Indian. I never will be Indian. I suppose I tried to force myself to be “Indian” when I practiced. This isn’t to say that there aren’t western Hindus who do adapt to Indian culture rather well, or even those who don’t and are still Hindu, but for me, Hinduism and Indian culture are basically one in the same. If you separate Hinduism from its Indianness, it becomes stale and watered down. Nothing more than meditation exercises and the occasional chant. It also doesn’t help that I felt more like a LARPer than a devotee

 

I don’t believe G-d has ever taken a physical form.  

Yes, there are Hindu schools which deny avatars, but refer to my first two points. For the longest time i thought these multiple entities were just different faces for one god. Well, if I believe they are all part of the One, then why not just worship the One?

 

The only reason I looked east was because I was angry at the west.

This is a common occurrence for many westerners who look east. I viewed western religions in a simplistic, black-and-white way and thought the east was clearly superior. 5 years later, and while Hinduism has helped me in many ways, it has it’s fair share of issues. But a fair many don’t want to acknowledge them, because “at least they aren’t Abrahamic.”

 

There are also more emotional and personal reasons why I left Hinduism to pursue Judaism, but these are probably the big “objective” four. I will never hate Hindus or Hinduism. I still associate with many from the past 5 years and many are still my friends. But I no longer could lie to myself that Hinduism was the right path for me. For those of us who are spiritually inclined, we have to be authentic in our search for G-d and faith. It’s only now where I feel my authentically emerging.