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Happy Thanksgivukah!

tturkey-dreidel-JPFerreira-flickr-roland-scheicher

Happy Thanksgivukah! Photos: JP Ferreira Flickr and Roland Scheicher

Happy Thanksgivukah! I admit that earlier this fall I resisted using this greeting, because I didn’t want to risk compromising the integrity of either holiday. Nevertheless, the confluence of these two beloved celebrations will not come around again for about 79,000 years, so I figured, why not?! If I’m still here for the next one, I’ll worry about it then. . .

As I said in my Bulletin message for this month, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are both celebrations of freedom – freedom from hunger and want, and freedom from religious coercion. The Pilgrims came here in 1620 to escape the religious tyranny of the Anglican Church, whose tenets they did not agree with. When they arrived, they faced the harshness of the New England winter and struggled to survive. Then, with the help of the Native Americans who were here, they eventually were able to plant appropriate crops and harvest them successfully. They joined with their newfound friends for a feast of Thanksgiving.

In 167 BCE, the Syrian King Antiochus IV (Antiochus “Epiphanes”) imposed a series of tyrannical decrees that banned the practice of Judaism in Judea, and coerce Jews into worshiping Zeus, and adopting pagan practices. The Syrians plundered and defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. This was effectively the first religiously-motivated persecution in history. But in 165 BCE, Judah the Maccabee and his army scored a huge military victory when they defeated the Syrian Army and expelled Antiochus’ army from the Temple. Then in celebration, and in rededication of the Temple to the God of Israel, the Maccabees were finally able to celebrate the 8-day harvest festival of Sukkot, which they could not celebrate two months earlier, with the Syrians still occupying the Temple. (The oil, of course, was needed to light the menorah in the Temple for all eight of these days of this festival.) So Hanukkah, within its own context, is also a celebration of Thanksgiving – both for the harvest, and for the assertion of Jewish integrity.

As I see it, this “Thanksgivukah” is a gift to us this year. We will have the opportunity to celebrate Chanukah with many of our family members and friends that perhaps we wouldn’t normally be able to see during Hanukkah. I hope that we will take advantage of that opportunity. Turkey and latkes? Why not! Pumpkin pie and jelly doughnuts? Oh, go ahead! But most important is that we take some time this Thursday to remember how fortunate we are, both as Americans, and as Jews. May we never take either of them for granted. Celebrate with blessings and song.

Happy Thanksgivukah!

The Extraordinary Poetry of Abraham Lincoln

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An early twentieth century poster showing a portrait of Abraham Lincoln above the words of the Gettysburg address

This week our country marks the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, to a crowd of about 15,000, at the consecration of a new national cemetery at Gettsyburg. On July 1-3 of that year, forces of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army and the Union Army of the Potomac, under the leadership of General George G. Meade, engaged in what would prove to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Some 23,000 Union soldiers were killed (about 1/4 of the Union Army’s forces) and 28,000 Confederate soldiers were killed (more that 1/3 of Lee’s forces). After Lee’s forces retreated, apparently Jefferson Davis was offered a chance to resign, but he refused, thus prolonging the war.

According to the mythology, Lincoln wrote the address on the back of an envelope while riding the train to Gettysburg. In actuality, Lincoln, who was not the main speaker on the program, wrote most of the speech before he left the White House, and finished it the night before the speech. Apparently Lincoln was not fond of making extemporaneous speeches, and worked on the remarks for almost two weeks.

Aside from the eloquence of the speech itself, what scholars point to as most noteworthy about the content is that Lincoln did not refer to the Constitution, but rather to the Declaration of Independence, as the statement of our national aspiration as Americans – the belief articulated by our Founding Fathers in the fundamental equality of all human beings. We remember, of course, that Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation some ten months earlier, in January of 1863.

While the issue of legalized slavery was settled at that point, the reverberations of oppression and racial inequality continue to plague us to this day. Fully 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver perhaps the most soaring oratory this country has heard since the Gettysburg Address. Now, 50 years after Dr. King’s speech, and the March On Washington, we still struggle as a nation with the demons of racism and inequality, economic and social disparity. It is important for us to mark milestones like these, not only to remind ourselves of the aspirations behind them, but also to refocus on the work that still lies before us in order to realize those aspirations.

One of the things we Americans seem to need from whoever our president may be at any given time, is that he (she) possess the ability to move and inspire us to be better than we are, and to live up to our potential as a nation. A handful of our presidents actually have possessed the gift and ability to do that. But perhaps none has ever duplicated the extraordinary poetry of Abraham Lincoln. And so, now fully 150 years later, we remain in awe of the majesty and profundity of this 272-word masterpiece. . .

”Four

A Tribute to Our Veterans

Signing of HR7786, June 1, 1954, this ceremony changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day. Alvin J. King, Wayne Richards, Arthur J. Connell, John T. Nation, Edward Rees, Richard L. Trombla, Howard W. Watts.

Signing of HR7786, June 1, 1954, this ceremony changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day. Alvin J. King, Wayne Richards, Arthur J. Connell, John T. Nation, Edward Rees, Richard L. Trombla, Howard W. Watts.

Today is Veterans Day. As we remember, however, the original holiday was called “Armistice Day,” after the Armistice with Germany took effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, to formally cease hostilities after World War I. The holiday was officially proclaimed by President Woodrow Wilson to take effect a year later, on November 11, 1919. Wilson wrote: “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us, and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.”

But then in 1945, a World War II veteran named Raymond Weeks of Birmingham, AL, requested that the holiday be expanded to celebrate ALL veterans; an idea supported by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Weeks began arranging celebrations in Alabama annually until the change to “Veterans Day” was formally signed into law in 1954 by Eisenhower himself, by then, President of the United States.

American Jews have a long and proud record of military service in the Armed Forces of the United States. It has been, for many, an affirmation of identity as Jewish Americans to serve the United States in this way. My father, z”l, and Steve’s father, z”l, served proudly during WWII, as did virtually all of their peers. They were part of what Tom Brokaw has dubbed “The Greatest Generation.”

As it happens, I had a great-uncle who served in WWI in Europe. I never knew him, and in fact, until I was a teenager, I never knew he had even existed. But in a rather roundabout way I found out about him, and a few years ago, I actually was able to locate his grave. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and, as is written on his gravestone, he died on Armistice Day of 1923 – exactly 100 years ago. The circumstances of his death and burial are too complicated for this limited context, though suffice it to say that I gather he suffered from “shell shock,” which was WWI’s precursor to what we might now call “PTSD,” with which we are now all too familiar.

As seemingly with ALL the holidays on our civil calendar, we are bombarded with sales, and specials, and sometimes, 3-day weekends. But as we certainly understand, the real point is for us to take a moment, on this day, to offer our respect and gratitude to ALL those who have served in the United States military. There is no way that we can adequately assess the sacrifice that they have made, and continue to make, for our country, and for the values of freedom and democracy. Since WWII, there obviously have been bitter controversies that have arisen over the wisdom of our involvement in various wars and armed conflicts around the world. But that does not change the good faith with which our fellow Americans have served. So on this day, we remember them, and offer them our gratitude.

Women at the Kotel

women-of-the-wall-website-screenshotChodesh Tov! This is our greeting to each other today on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month. Today begins the month of Kislev, during which, of course, we will celebrate Chanukah (25 Kislev) – our festival of light and freedom.

The number 25 for this particular Rosh Chodesh Kislev is most auspicious indeed. Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall. For 25 years now Jewish women of all denominations, nationalities, and social strata, have come together to hold Morning Prayers for Rosh Chodesh. Month after month, Rosh Chodesh after Rosh Chodesh, legal case after legal case, Supreme Court decision after decision, arrest after arrest — for 25 years. But the past year has been an extraordinary year. After the crackdown by the Rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, leading to an increased number of arrests of women at the Kotel for the “crimes” of raising their voices in prayer together, and wearing tallitot, the citizens of Israel, and Jews around the world stood up and said, ENOUGH! And indeed, as of last Spring, an Israeli court handed down the decision that women were NOT breaking any laws by holding services at the Kotel, and wearing Talitot and Tefillin.

While this represented a gigantic victory for Nashot Hakotel, the summer months were quite chaotic and difficult. At the urging of Rabbi Rabinowitz, thousands of Ultra-Orthodox women and yeshiva girls flooded the Kotel plaza to prevent the members of Nashot Hakotel from getting near the Wall itself, and there was loud and depressing heckling and shouting back and forth.

But today, on the 25th anniversary of Nashot Hakotel, Women of the Wall, there was no such blockade. I just heard from Noam Zion, one of the faculty members of the Hartman Institute, who went to the Wall with the group, that the abbreviation of the group, “WOW,” would be a great way to describe the goings-on. A delegation of my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues, and congregants as well, are in Jerusalem today for this anniversary. Together with Jews from all over Israel, they went to the Kotel to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, about 1,000 strong. And indeed, “WOW” is the word. Noam said the dovening was wonderful. And while there were some cat calls and whistles from the Ultra-Orthodox hecklers, it really was pretty mild, and didn’t throw any sort of damper on the elation of WOW, and particularly of Anat Hoffman, leader and driving force of the group. The police, of course, are now charged not with harassing WOW, but keeping the hecklers and opponents from throwing chairs and other objects, and exerting any sort of physical violence upon the women.

Social progress often takes longer than we would like. There is still much to accomplish for WOW. It is still not possible to actually read the Torah at the Wall, because the women are still barred from bringing one in (a lingering punishment in place since Anat’s first arrest in July of 2010). But the time will come, if we keep the pressure on. In addition, the Scharansky proposal for constructing a third section of the Wall for egalitarian prayer is still far from any realistic materialization. But just for today, we won’t worry about that. Just for today, we will revel in the progress that WOW has achieved. And once again, we wish each other Chodesh Tov!