Sunday, November 25, 2012

Jews and Christmas Trees?

By Vicki Polin
The Examiner - November 25, 2012

For those not familiar with the Jewish faith, Christmas is NOT a Jewish Holiday, nor a holiday celebrated by the vast majority of Jews. Over the years with the increase of assimilation and the fact that Christmas has been promoted as a secular holiday, many non-practicing Jews and individuals from many non-Christian faiths have been integrating the holiday into their families traditions.
Recently I started asking online the question, “Do you think it is OKAY for people who are Jewish to have a Christmas tree in their home?" I was astounded by the whole array of emotionally filled responses I received from individuals from within every movement of Judaism. –– From those who consider themselves to be orthodox through individuals who are unaffiliated.
For many who responded when thinking about Jews celebrating Christmas –– let alone having a Christmas tree in their homes, brought back memories of those who were murdered by Nazis –– and throughout the history of the Jewish people.
Susie Cohen” of Skokie, IL said: “For centuries Jews have been displaced, raped, tortured and killed for holding onto their culture, religion and belief system.”
Another common theme in responses was that while growing up parents decided to bring a Christmas tree into their homes because they didn’t want their children growing up feeling like they were missing out on something. At the same time individuals from within the same demographics (those from rural communities and also large cities), stated: “Their parents would haved drempt of bring a Christmas tree into their homes because they didn’t want their children to loose sight of what it meant to be a Jew.”
It was also interesting to hear from a group of people who answered the question by saying: “we spend far too much time worrying about what other Jews do in their homes and not enough about how we do Jewish in our own.”
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who is the spiritual leader at Anshe Sholom Bnai Israel Congregation in Chicago, stated that “a Christmas tree is a Christian symbol and, to my understanding, brings a powerful Christian atmosphere to any home that has one. Any Jewish home contemplating having a Christmas tree should be honest about how powerful this symbol is and whether they want the Judaism in their home - which might be quite subtle at times - to be overpowered by such a strong Christian symbol.”
Chicago Resident, David Blatt who considers himself to be an orthodox Jew says: “Why not? Asian-Americans, who are often Buddhists like my Japanese-American friend John, has had one for years. American Jews, sadly have a strong anti-Christian bias but let's be honest: Who of these two did a greater transgression: –– Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who was busy molesting girls for years in the name of Torah -–– or Mr B, a 50 something single guy, who just put up a small Christmas tree in his studio high rise apartment?”
Los Angeles native, Alex Asher Sears, shared that she “grew up in a mixed faith home with a Jewish foundation but joy in celebrating the rituals my non-Jewish family had, too. We had a tree from the time I was about 10.
I also grew up learning that the tree was about the Solstice and that the fact that these holidays occur around the same time of year was to understand that religions probably have more in common than less.
I grew up understanding that all of these holidays in the way we celebrate them with gifts was NOT a religious thing. This is a time of year for reflection, celebration and doing for others.
What was more important was that “I learned to love the family gatherings that took place round the menorah and also around the tree. Both were important because they were our families rituals. We gave them the meaning we wanted them to have.
If I marry a man who said no tree, I wouldn't be OK with it, because the tree ties me to the rituals of my family. For me having a Christmas tree means that when my grandmother talks about Christmas morning as a little girl I can understand just as I do when my Bubby tells me stories of Passover when she was a child. And I think they each got great joy being able to celebrate those aspects of their childhoods with their grandchildren and vice versa.
A few personal friends who converted to Judaism, stated that they couldn’t imagine bringing a tree into their homes, especially for them the tree represented the faith they walked away from."
New York psychologist, Michael J. Salamon stated: “I was raised to believe that a tree represents a holiday that we cannot follow. Perhaps it is because my father, as a Holocaust survivor, saw Nazism as deeply rooted in Catholic anti-Semitism and therefore, symbols of Catholicism were just not acceptable.”
TammySue Margalit, who grew up in Skokie responded by saying: “HELL NO, not in my house, but I will not tell someone else what to do.”
Rabbi Zev Shandalov, a Chicago native who now resides in Israel believes that “the Christmas tree is one of the most well-known representations of the celebration of the Christian holiday. By introducing that symbol into one's JEWISH home, one is in fact taking another step towards assimilation. A Christian is free to practice his or her religion as seen fit. However, it must be realized that it is indeed THEIR religion and not ours. Bringing a Christmas tree into the home negates one's Judaism and Jewish roots.
Additionally, our religion is so rich and full of beauty and wonders! The Menorah is such an awesome symbol--one of light in dark times, faith in G-d and brings families together in warmth and love. Why does one feel a sense of lacking in all that we have that he need bring in foreign symbols? Our religion lacks nothing.”
Marcia Cohn Spiegel, a long time activist for Jewish women’s civil rights believes that “it depends on the situation. I would find it disturbing in my house, but in interfaith marriages it honors the customs of one partner (if that partner also honors Jewish customs).”
Danny Shaffer of Highland Park, IL responded by saying: “The truth is I frickin' LOVE christmas! I get the tree with my boys..we listen to christmas music while we decorate it, put gifts under the tree..cookies for santa.. watch all the christmas movies..the whole nine yards..it's a great AMERICAN holiday and as you know –– I’m seriously Jewish.”
Shoshana Martyniak said: “My husband isn't Jewish, and one of the things that I said when we were first dating was that if we were going to continue to date, he had to give up christmas and the tree. I wanted a Jewish home and part of that Jewish home is creating a safe space where you can be free in your Jewishness. I realize that much of secular non-Jewish America, including the giant gentiles families –– see nothing religious about Christmas.
As a Jew, no matter how pretty the lights are, no matter how good the tree smells, it is still a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ-- a man who is not our messiah, who, to us, is not the son of G-d, nor a part of our story at all. So, why would Jews celebrate his birthday? Especially in our own homes?
Over the years, I've made the concession that if we are in Wisconsin, we will visit my in-laws on Christmas. There are rules: 1) No Christmas presents for my children 2) An understanding that we are VISITING them and my children are sharing their holiday, just as when we invite non-Jewish friends to passover, but it is not our holiday, it’s not in my houses.
And yes, I do judge when it comes to this. I do think it's confusing. Children have enough Christianity thrown at them during this time-- their houses should be safe. There needs to be a line.”
Rabbi David Gruber, a native of Evanston, IL –– stated that “like most things in life, a one size fits all approach is seldom helpful. A Christmas Tree is not something that has meaning for me, personally. It would, therefore, not serve any constructive function in my home. However, there may be families, where this may have personal meaning. I see no harm in those families having a tree.”
Sara Hawkins said that "for many years I put up a Christmas tree. My best friend and college roommate celebrated Christmas so we decorated for both Hanukkah and Christmas. Life went on, we graduated, moved away and then eventually ended up in the same city, she in her apartment, my husband and I in our house.
Since we had the larger place we'd invite my best friend to come over (and others who would be alone) on Christmas.
One year I decided to put up a tree for her on Christmas Eve so she'd have a familiar experience. It wasn't about me or my beliefs. I did that for about 10 years and many of my Jewish friends thought it was great while others chided me for being a horrible person for bringing a Christian relic into my home.
What I do in my home in a loving appreciation of my friends and family is not for anyone to judge me negatively, but people will (and do).
Do I think Jewish people should put up a Christmas tree? Sure, if that makes them feel happy and joyful and good. Christmas trees aren't even of Christian origin, they're Egyptian (from what I learned). The original question of "Is it OK..." already sets this up as a good/not good discussion. Of course it's OK for Jews to put a Christmas tree in their home, as much as it is OK for me to put a fountain, crystals or coins to enhance my home's Feng Shui.
Shalom bayit (peace in the home) is something I subscribe to, and anything that should brings peace, love and joy into a home should is more important than being judged by outsiders."
Rebbitzen Nechama Eilfort, who teaches at the Hebrew Academy in Huntington Beach, CA shared: “The xmas tree has never been considered a symbol of peace. If anything it represented a connection to German culture as the 'modern' custom of decorating a tree at home started in Germany.
It is clearly not 'fine' to have an xmas tree or fir wreaths for Jews. The star at the top represents the star of Bethlehem that appeared on the eve of the birth of the xtian god. There are many suggestions that the use of the tree has pagan origins in which case it falls under the 'asheira' prohibition.
Use by Jews suggests a desire to assimilate and appear no different from the surrounding nations. This is the antitheses of Judaism. It is the role of a Jew to be a light among the Nations. To stand out, not to blend in.
When faced with the type of anti semitism we are faced with today it is important to react by being proud, visible, religiously active Jews.”
Rabbi Ze’ev Smason, who is the spiritual leader of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion (St. Louis, MO), shared his thoughts on the topic, stating that “any knowledgeable Christian would object to the suggestion that a Christmas tree has no Christian religious meaning, just as a knowledgeable Jew would object to the suggestion that the menorah or Star of David are secular symbols. However, we need go no further than to look at the word 'Christmas' of 'Christmas tree' to see the tree's connection to Christian belief. Regarding the question, "Is it OK for Jews to have a Christmas tree in their home?", the answer is an unequivocal "No."
Judaism contains a richness and depth with its 613 mitzvos (commandments) that enables every Jew the opportunity to connect with the Almighty, our fellow man, one's Jewish identity, and universal and spiritual truths. When Judaism is transmitted in a meaningful, relevant fashion, it becomes obvious that our laws and traditions contain within them the opportunity to fulfill and satisfy our spiritual yearnings. To any Jew who feels the inclination to turn to non-Jewish religious symbols such as the Christmas tree for spiritual fulfillment, I say: "Check out your own heritage first."
Sara Atkins of Wynnewood, PA, believes that “people should actually learn about Hanukkah –– not the story they tell about the oil but the real story, but about the struggle and why we (Maccabees) fought and won. Maybe if people REALLY understood Hanukkah they wouldn't be running so quickly to put up a tree. Or what the military victory, was really about. Hanukkah is celebrating the victory of yet another group trying to assimilate us –– and getting us to shed Judaism –– but it didn’t work, we fought and we won. Hanukkah is basically a big old celebration of stopping assimilation.”
For me (Vicki Polin), I did not grow up with any formal Jewish education, nor were my parents or grandparents holocaust survivors. My parents would never allowed a Christmas tree in our home. When I was younger, my sisters and I would go over to a neighbors home to decorate their tree. I personally remember feeling out of place doing so. I remember my father explaining to us that Jews are not christian, nor do we celebrate christian holidays such as Christmas –– for that reason, we do not have a Christmas tree. My mother then went on and reminded us about the holocaust –– and how people hated us [Jews] because our belief system was different. My mother continued by reminding us of the number of innocent people, including Jews who perished in the holocaust –– and that in honor of their memory we do NOT practice another faith, nor bring icons or symbolism's of the other faiths into our home.
The topic of not having Christmas trees in our home was one of the many family traditions my parents passed down to the next generation –– along with the importance of understanding and accepting cultural differences amongst our friends. Even though we never had any real formal Jewish education, my parents wanted my sisters and to be proud of our ethnicity and faith.
I personally would never bring a Christmas tree, nor anything representative of another faith into my home. Yet I do believe since one of the major premises of Judaism is the fact that we all have free will, I personally believe it has to be an individual decision to choose what is best for each individual family’s situation and home.

END NOTE: According to Rebbitzen Eilfort an asherah was a tree that represented fertility and goddess worship. That it was an evergreen tree (ie one that didn't die in the winter) would make sense.

There is a Biblical prohibition as well as a positive commandment to not set up and to cut down any trees that represent asherah worship.
Many pagan tribes had a great fear of winter and death (see Beowulf) and created rituals to calm those fears, such as placing evergreen wreaths at doorways etc.

Sources:
Deuteronomy 16:21 states that Hashem hated Asherim whether rendered as poles— "Do not set up any [wooden] Asherah [pole] beside the altar you build to the Lord your God"— or as living trees— "You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God which you shall make". That Asherahs were not always living trees is shown in 1 Kings 14:23: "their asherim , beside every luxuriant tree". Exodus 34:13 states: "Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles."


Suggested Films:

Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Yizkor Prayer for those who were abused as children

A Yizkor Meditation in Memory of a Parent Who Was Hurt
By Rabbi Robert Sax
Mahzor Lev Shalem - For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
Published by The Rabbinical Assembly

Dear God,

You know my heart. 
Indeed, You know me better than I know myself, so I turn to You before I rise for Kaddish. 
My emotions swirl as I say this prayer. The parent I remember was not kind to me. His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger and of dismay that a parent could hurt a child as I was hurt. 
I do not want to pretend to love, or to grief that I do not feel, but I do want to do what is right as a Jew and as a child.
Help me, O God, to subdue my bitter emotions that do me no good, and to find that place in myself where happier memories may lie hidden, and where grief for all that could have been, all that should have been, may be calmed by forgiveness, or at least soothed by the passage of time. 
I pray that You, who raise up slaves to freedom, will liberate me from the oppression of my hurt and anger, and that You will lead me from this desert to Your holy place. —robert Saks




Monday, October 22, 2012

Are Some Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Kiruv Organizations Feeder Groups For Cults?


© (2012) By Vicki Polin
Originally published by The Examiner on October 22, 2012

The majority of Shabbatons offered by non-cult like groups are amazing experiences. Over the years I’ve been to a few that were both cult and non-cult like. Going to a legitimate shabbaton is like going to a “spa for your soul”. A shabbaton is a weekend retreat over the Jewish sabbath, created for those who are wishing to learn more about Torah based Judaism.


I’ll admit that during cult like shabbatons I was aware of some of the manipulative techniques that were being utilized, yet I found myself dismissing my thoughts and feelings about what was being said and done. I was aware that these cult-like groups were using shabbos as a way to lure in secular Jews for their own personal gain. The truth is there’s a lot of money to be made off of someone becoming orthodox. Between the cost of providing the needed education, the purchases to create a kosher home and maintaining it, the purchase of religious artifacts, and –– a lot of costs are involved. As well, if someone is a devotee, they will show their thanks by making donations to the cult-like institution for years to come.


The typical Shabbaton in the ultra-orthodox world is often stacked with volunteers who’s job is to befriend newcomers. During this process the “volunteers” start the love bombing techniques, in hopes of making the individual feel how extremely important their neshema (soul) is to the Jewish people –– along with teaching a very skewed version of Judaism. During conversations, the volunteer will also learn as much as they can about their new “unaffiliated Jewish friend” –– and then report back this information to the retreat’s organizers. 


Like any other type of conference, participants exchange phone numbers for the purpose of networking. Sharing this type of information at a cult like Shabbaton allows those involved in the cult based kiruv world to secure contact information of unaffiliated Jews. This is vitally important so they can continue with the love bombing process in the guise of assisting them in their personal spiritual journey. Like most other large cult like groups, ultra-orthodox kiruv workers have an international network so that they can connect unaffiliated Jews with other kiruv workers who may live closer. They also maintain an online database so that they can share information about individual baal teshuva’s (returnee to the Jewish orthodox lifestyle) so that the love bombing process can continue.


It is quite normal for the organizers of the weekend retreats (in both cult and non-cult like shabbatons), to arrange for the potential baal teshuva to have shabbos meals back in their home communities as a way to introduce them to new orthodox friends. According to Halacha (Jewish law), Jews are not allowed to drive during shabbos –– because of this, it is not uncommon for the new orthodox friends to encourage the newbies to stay overnight, in hopes of preventing the unaffiliated Jew from violating shabbos. 


As time progresses and the newbie in the orthodox world gets more involved, they tend to spend more time within an eruv (orthodox Jewish community). This is especially true as they make the switch from the secular lifestyle into a Torah observant Jew. 


Friends and family members of the baal teshuva will complain that they no longer seem to have time for them. This is because the new devotee is involved with learning Torah and other activities that occur within the orthodox world. Depending on the group a baal teshuva gets involved with, it may be encouraged that they spend less time in attending family functions. This is a red flag that the group may be considered cultish, especially if the newbies rabbi doesn’t help them to find kosher ways to be involved with their families and secular friends.


Keeping kosher and shabbos are the key components of becoming an orthodox Jew, both of which are beautiful customs and traditions. They are also practices that by nature separates a person from the life they knew prior to becoming religious. In the mainstream orthodox world, kiruv workers will work with the baal teshuva in finding ways to include their family members and old friends in their lives. This is not necessarily true in the cult like groups. Another interesting aspect of a cult-like community, is that when working with a baal teshuva, they will keep the new member so busy with activities that they have no time to be with old friends, family members or to think deeply about their involvement or activities that might lead them away from the cult experience. They do their best to control the contact and relationships of their members.


The longer a baal teshuva is enmeshed with or lives within a cult like existence, the more likely it is that the individual stops utilizing their ability to think for themselves –– let alone have their reasoning processes interrupted. The baal teshuva will start to find ways of rationalizing the need for their rabbonim to have influence on just about everything they do, say and think. 


Another technique utilized by cult like communities is that they find ways to cut the baal teshuva off from the rest of the world. Early on they being to talk about the evil influence of television, going to the movies, listening to secular radio stations or reading newspapers that have not been approved by their rabbis. To insure that community members obey the rules set up by the rabbonim, there’s very common practice within the cult like Jewish world to report any indiscretions, no matter how minor made by a group member to the groups leader(s).


When this occurs, the individual member is either called in for a special meeting or the situation will be discussed in a shiur (Torah class), or during a shabbos sermon -- without naming the individual, yet with enough information that most people can figure out who the rabbi is discussing.


When a member of an ultra-orthodox cult like group world questions the authority of a rabbi, does not change behavior or disobeys a rabbinic decrees -- they end up getting shunned by the community. Not only will other members be banned from talking or associating with the accused, family members including their children will also effected. Children of the banned cult-member will no longer be allowed to play other children -- and often are no longer allowed to attend the Jewish parochial school set up within the given community. 


Walking away from an ultra-orthodox Jewish fundamentalist group is not unlike leaving any other cult-like community. Doing so means leaving just about everyone and everything you know and love behind. “Religious friends” may no longer be there for you, cult involved family members may shun you. Several ex-baal teshuva’s have reported they were no longer allowed to shop at stores within the communities they once called home. 


Going back to your old life may also be difficult, especially if you’ve been away for any length of time. Even though your experiences in the secular world were put on hold, most people and things have moved on. One ex-Baal Teshuva reported that it was like living in the movie “Back to the Future” or the book “Rip Van Winkel”. In their minds they wanted everything to be exactly like it was prior to entering the cult-like world, yet everyone and everything moved on. Most people in the secular world do not understand the ultra-orthodox world. What rabbis and community members of the chasidic world found important -- the secular world does not. 


It takes time and patience to fit back in. It is an adjustment to think for one's self and to sort through the experiences that led to joining and the leaving this ultra orthodox world. Many experience difficulties with readjusting to their previous life. Many may benefit finding a therapist who understands and has experience working with individuals who have lived within cults, fundamentalist and or extremist groups.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Women's History: Civil Rights For women

PICTURED ABOVE: International gathering of woman suffrage advocates in Washington, D.C., 1888. Seated (left to right) are Alice Scotchard (England), Susan B. Anthony (United States), Isabella Bogelot (France), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (United States), Matilda Joslyn Gage (United States), and Baroness Alexandra Gripenberg (Finland). The names of the individuals standing could not be determined.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Being an educated consumer: Jewish Survivors of Sexual Abuse/Assault

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tashlich and Healing from Child Abuse

© (2012) By Vicki Polin


Tashlich (תשליך) is a ritual that many Jews observe during the High Holidays. "Tashlich" means "casting off" in Hebrew and involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water. Just as the water carries away the bits of bread, so too are sins symbolically carried away. In this way the participant hopes to start the New Year with a clean slate.