Tag Archives: judaism

Day of the Dead and Sukkot: Dead Ringers?

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

When we first were in Mexico for Day of the Dead (an autumn more than 25 years ago), we had the feeling of deja vu or, more appropriately, ya hemos visto. No, not because of the superficial similarity with Halloween. As we were escorted around a cemetery by a proud local resident who explained Day of the Dead customs and told stories about the members of his family who were interred there, we were struck by the similarities with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Both Sukkot and Day of the Dead are autumn festivals. Both have been celebrated for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The celebration of Sukkot is described in the Torah, aka the Old Testament (OT), partial copies of which have been scientifically dated from around 500 BCE. Although Day of the Dead may not be quite as old, there’s reportedly archeological evidence that the celebration occurred centuries before the Spanish began colonizing the Americas in 1493. Both holidays should actually be called holy days since there is a deeply spiritual significance for both practices – and these holy days (two days for Day of the Dead and eight for Sukkot) are synonymous with the practices in many ancient tribal cultures of providing thanks to divine beings for that autumn’s agricultural harvest.

Both holy days involve building a relatively small temporary structure. The Day of the Dead altar, or ofrenda, has three distinct levels. The sukkah, or booth of Sukkot, is defined by three walls. The top level of the ofrenda is an open arch and the top of the sukkah must be open to the sky. The building and decorating of both structures is commonly communal and cooperative. Flowers, especially marigolds in Mexico, are generally brought from individual and community gardens to beautify the ofrenda and sukkah.

Both structures are viewed as portals through which ancestors can visit the living, or at least the living can remember and honor the memory of deceased relatives. The ofrenda, as the name implies, provides a table for holding food and drink preferred by deceased relatives along with photos of the dearly departed. The sukkah walls are traditionally decorated with pictures of ancient ancestors – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah and Rachel – plus, in more modern times, photographs of more recent forebears. A table is set up in the sukkah where foods made from favorite recipes from previous generations are served.

Prayers and spiritual ceremonies are an important element of both Sukkot and Day of the Dead. Subsequent to the conversion to Catholicism of the indigenous people of Mexico by the Spanish conquerors, it is not surprising that Day of the Dead prayers ask for blessings on the souls of the departed in the name of Jesus Christ. But more ancient elemental spiritual Day of the Dead ceremonies focus on fire, water, earth and wind. Sukkot prayers and ceremonies also include these elements: fire in the form of candle lighting, water in prayers for rain, earth in the form of the branches of three plants (palm, myrtle, and willow) that are bound together to form a lulav and are held together with an etrog (citron), and wind created by shaking the lulav in all four directions plus up toward the heavens and down towards the earth.

At first glance, both observances appear to be grave in tenor. Day of the Dead ceremonies take place in cemeteries, both Holy Days take place at the time of year when flora and fauna are entering their dormant stage, days are growing shorter and darker, and the focus is on dead ancestors. But both Day of the Dead and Sukkot observances are joyous. In fact, Jews and everyone in their communities are literally commanded in the Torah (OT) to be happy. And, as part of the joy, both Holy Days involve storytelling, music and dancing.

Another shared practice is feasting with family and friends. Foods are distinctly ethnic but fundamentally similar. Bread is an essential component; aside from the addition of anise, Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead) resembles the challah served on Sukkot – they have virtually the same ingredients and much the same taste. At both holy feasts, it’s common to serve seasonal fruits and vegetables seasoned with sweeteners, as well as stuffed ancestral foods: kreplach (little dumplings stuffed with seasoned chopped meat) for Sukkot and tamales for Day of the Dead. Children of both cultures enjoy candied apples – albeit decorated as skulls for Day of the Dead.

Perhaps these similarities are based on the core principle of both observances – the realization that life on Earth is temporary, that one day we will all join our ancestors. And the hope in both cultures is that just as we remember those who came before us, we in turn will be remembered for good by those who come after us.

Jewish Stories

Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Have you ever wondered why so many well-known writers, including Nobel Prize winners, are Jewish? From Isaac Asimov through Franz Kafka, Lillian Hellman, Emma Lazarus and J.D. Salinger to Elie Wiesel, to name a few, hundreds of Jewish authors have challenged our imaginations and shaped the course of literature. What is it about being Jewish that stimulates the creative impulse to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and pour out captivating tales? One answer may be that Jews are steeped in stories – stories that are thousands or at least hundreds of years old and passed on from generation to generation.

The primary source of these stories is the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians generally refer to as “the old testament.” Jews refer to the first parts of these scriptures as the Torah, or the five books of Moses. The first book alone includes two creation stories, stories about the first humans, the flood that destroyed everyone except for Noah and his clan, the first generations of Hebrews headed by Abraham and Sarah, then Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and his wives (Leah and Rachel) and his concubines who gave birth to the twelve tribes of Israel. The second book is packed with stories about the Israelites becoming slaves in Egypt, their rescue with the leadership of Moses and his sister Miriam, and Mount Sinai where the ten commandments were received.

The whole collection of Hebrew scriptures is called the Tanakh. Included are the well-known stories of Jonah and the whale, the tragedy of Job, the lovely story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi, the tale of the love between David and Jonathan, the story of brave Queen Esther who saved the Jews in Persia from being killed by the wicked Haman, and scores of other stories less well known among people who aren’t Jewish. Some of these stories are grim and grisly – stuff of which nightmares are made. Others are inspiring, some championing the rights of women. And there are others that are beautiful stories of erotic yearning.

Many Jews are raised on the stories from Tanakh, often from the beginning of their lives – the day they are born. Jewish children usually are given two names; one a popular name in the country in which they are born and the other a Hebrew name borne by a late relative – the latter is generally drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. The first stories Jewish children generally hear, in addition to The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears, are Bible stories about their biblical namesake, the person who bore their name in the Tanakh. The stories become deeply personified. Children named David know they are meant to be musicians and kings. Children named Rebecca love to hear how they were recognized for their kind acts. And little girls named Esther enjoy parading around with a crown acting brave.

Jewish children have been told stories from Tanakh for millennia and given beautifully illustrated books of these stories. The 20th century saw the addition of baby board books and easy reader books with brightly drawn short Bible stories. And stuffed toys such as a Noah’s ark and a little plush replica of a Torah introduce wee ones to stories as they hug them close. Traditionally, at age three Jewish children begin to learn how to read Torah themselves. A piece of honey is placed on the first word to learn; and when the child sucks on the honey while learning to read the letter, the sweet taste of honey becomes synonymous with the sweet taste of learning the stories in Torah.

Stories from Tanakh have for thousands of years stimulated other stories by being embellished. Spin-off stories written by rabbis and scholars have been collected in books called Midrash. Each major character in Tanakh has generated dozens of stories that help flesh out and provide insights into their personalities and motivations for their actions. Abraham is depicted as a child willfully destroying the idols in his home. Sarah is described as one of the most beautiful women in the world even in old age. And Moses as a shepherd, it is told, showed such great compassion for a little lost lamb that he was chosen as the leader to guide the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Many Jewish children learn these elaborated stories along with the Biblical versions. And when they attend Sunday School or Hebrew School classes, they are encouraged to create their own interpretations of these stories. It is common to see preschoolers or those in the earliest grades of primary school proudly bringing home stories they have written about a character in a Torah story – their letters can be irregular, their words misspelled, and their sentences ungrammatical – but just as midrash written millennia ago is prized, so are these early efforts.

Older children and teens are often encouraged to write their own plays or music based on stories from tanakh and midrash. This creativity, continued into adulthood, has produced innumerable TV programs, movies, novels, poetry, and musical scores, not necessarily on Jewish or religious themes.

So, consider how much of current culture, including magazine articles, is founded on children learning stories.

Jewish Weddings in Mexico and around the World

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

We recently talked to a friend who had attended one of the newest international trends in pre-wedding ceremonies: a proposal party. How does it work? Planned by the prospective groom with the help of family and friends, but putatively without any involvement by the bride-to-be, they select a time and location and invite those close to the couple to gather to witness the formal proposal. The prospective bride is provided with an excuse to appear at the selected location at a time after everyone else. When she arrives, she is greeted by the one hoping to be her spouse, who “pops the question” and presents her with a ring. When she accepts, the gathered group cheers and then all celebrate – most often with toasts, a festive meal, music and dancing. (Of course, proposal parties may also be for same-gender couples, so you can just change the nouns and pronouns accordingly.)

Although proposal parties are thought to be a new form of pre-wedding celebration, they actually are similar to one of the oldest forms of ceremonies. Jewish rituals have for centuries incorporated pre-wedding ceremonies at which the prospective bride agrees to marry a man, traditionally a man selected for her by her family, and the ritual includes similar celebratory components. Since the 12th century among Jews in Europe, the ceremony has been called Tena’im in Hebrew, which translates to Conditions. The couple, who often meet for the first time at the ceremony, formally agree to marry in the future. They sign an engagement contract stating the conditions for the forthcoming marriage, usually including a wedding date, that had been worked out by their families. Then the couple exchange articles of value – most often jewelry. The ceremony is finalized by the breaking of a ceramic plate dropped on a hard surface by both mothers of the couple.

The origins of the breaking of the plate are obscure. Some say the broken plate symbolizes that the engagement breaks the possibility of the couple marrying anyone else. Others say the breaking is a metaphor for making a bond between the couple which breaks the bond they had with their mothers. Yet another explanation is that the breaking of the plate foreshadows the breaking of a glass that will happen at the forthcoming wedding ceremony. Independent of the explanation, at the conclusion of the ceremony the couple has a legal status of being committed to each other – but definitely not yet married. Nowadays, among orthodox Jews this ceremony is scheduled to take place immediately before the marriage ceremony, thus truncating the “not yet married” period. Among Jews who follow more modern practices, Tena’im has given way to engagement parties or, as already described, proposal parties.

Traditional Jewish weddings, whether in Mexico, north of the border, or Europe, follow more or less the same format. Brides and their families often spend much time deciding on specific details of music, dress, decorations, and reception food and drink so that their occasion will be special. But thinking back over the dozens of ceremonies and celebrations we’ve attended, including our own almost 59 years ago, they follow a pattern established centuries ago.

In the weeks before the wedding, the bride and the groom, even in cases where they have been living together, separate and don’t see each other as they prepare for the event. They remain apart even during the day of the wedding until the groom, accompanied by the men and musicians, enters a room where the bride is seated and is waiting surrounded by women friends and family. The groom lifts the bridal veil off the face of his intended, and once sure that a substitution has not been made, as in the biblical substitution of Leah for Rachel, he lowers the veil and the men, accompanied by music, leave. In modern years, some couples have decided to forego this ceremony and choose to wait until they meet under the huppah, a small four-cornered tent that symbolizes the home they will build together.

Virtually all Jewish weddings take place under a huppah. In fact, the word huppah has come to mean the core of the marriage ceremony and is used in wedding invitations, for example, “Gathering at 5pm and huppah at 6pm.” For several decades, brides went wild demanding that their huppah be constructed from wild roses or other rare and expensive materials. Fortunately, most brides now have recovered their senses and select a traditional huppah consisting of a lovely cloth held aloft with four corner poles. To honor people in their lives, the families of the couple invite four people to hold the poles during the ceremony, giving them the best view of the proceedings.

Core to a Jewish marriage is the ketubah, a legal contract in which the rights of the bride are spelled out in great detail, including provisions to be made for her during the marriage and monies or properties she will receive if her husband predeceases her or if the marriage ends in divorce. This ancient form of a “pre-nup” protects the bride and is retained in her possession. Before the main ceremony, both the bride and groom sign the document, it is witnessed and signed by two friends of the families, and also signed by the officiating rabbi or other officiant authorized to perform marriages. In the past few decades, following an ancient practice, once the terms of the ketubah have been agreed on by both families, an artist is hired to literally draw up the ketubah, and after the marriage the framed ketubah is displayed like a piece of artwork on a wall of the couple’s home.

The procession at a Jewish wedding is indicative of the way Jewish practice has been shaped by the surrounding culture. By long-standing tradition, the parents of the groom first accompany him to the huppah and then the parents of the bride accompany her to the huppah. But this tradition has been modified to allow the grandparents, siblings, other family members and friends to participate in the wedding processional. And, as in many non-Jewish weddings, a Jewish bride commonly is walked down an aisle to the huppah accompanied by her father to the strains of “Here Comes the Bride.” However, unlike non-Jewish weddings, the father is not asked to “give her away.” Instead, traditionally the bride is led seven times in a circle around the waiting groom.

Under the huppah, two ceremonies take place – the sanctification, in which the ketubah is read, and blessings are recited over a cup of wine from which the couple both drink, and the rabbi blesses them as sanctified and dedicated solely to each other. Then the actual moment of the wedding, when the groom slips the ring on the middle finger of the left hand of his bride and recites in Hebrew, “Behold by this ring you are consecrated to me as my wife according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” In some modern ceremonies, the bride may also give the groom a ring, usually with an appropriate verse in Hebrew from the Bible, such as “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” Next, seven blessings are recited. In a recent interpretation, the blessings are for love, a loving home, playful humor, wisdom, health, creativity, and community. The ceremony is concluded by the groom stomping on and shattering a glass, and all assembled shouting “Mazel Tov.”

Following the ceremony, it is traditional for the bride and groom to be given 20 minutes or so to be absolutely alone, with two honored guests posted at the door of the room in which they are sequestered to ensure that no one disturbs them. After they emerge, they are commonly seated at a table just for the two of them and everyone is obliged to entertain them with singing and dancing. One of the dances that almost always takes place is the “hora,” an Israeli circle dance. And when the bride or groom is the youngest child and all their older siblings are married, the mother is lifted in a chair in the middle of the circle dance so all can congratulate her on accomplishing all mothers’ traditional dream – seeing all her children happily married.

We have watched over the decades as traditional Jewish engagement and wedding practices come and go or morph into new forms. With assimilation of Jews an ongoing trend and rates of intermarriage high, we have celebrated family Buddist/Jewish (BuJu) weddings, Hindu/Jewish (HinJu) weddings, weddings jointly officiated by Christian and Jewish clergy, and one wedding of a Jewish nephew and his Christian bride on a beach in Lanai where an enormous Hawaiian Kahuna priest tied the knot. Two of the most traditional Jewish weddings we celebrated were marriages of same-gender couples.

Our marriage had all the elements of a Jewish wedding: huppah, ketubah, sanctification, rings, seven blessings, and breaking of the glass, as did the wedding of our son and daughter-in-law and many family members here in Mexico and the US. However, we would be delighted but have no expectation of our grandchildren necessarily following the same traditions. Many couples of their generation have even eschewed marriage altogether, much less traditional weddings. But on the other hand, reportedly several couples of their ages have said they don’t want an engagement party made by their parents but rather a Jewish Tena’im proposal party. We will just have to wait and see whether we get to experience the continuation of these ancient traditions.

New Year of the Trees

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

A deep appreciation for trees is integral to Judaism.  Trees are mentioned over a hundred times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Hebrew generic word for fruit also appears over a hundred times. In addition, specific trees and fruits that grew in ancient Israel, including the date, fig, olive, and persimmon, are described and praised throughout the Bible.

Two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, are central to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, as is a fruit that they were not supposed to eat but did. The tree of life later came to be metaphorically associated with the entirety of Judaic knowledge or with the totality of human generations, and representations of the tree of life are commonly found in synagogues, works of art, and the titles of books or movies. Traditional sayings about the tree of life are commonly inscribed in Hebrew on the walls or doors of Jewish schools and places of worship.

When the State of Israel was reestablished in 1948, much of the land had been stripped bare of trees during the centuries when most Jews had been in exile. A major effort was launched to turn Israel’s desert land into fertile areas of orchards and forests. Trees were planted that were the same species that Jews had nurtured 3,000 years earlier at the time of King David.  Children around the world collected coins to support that effort, and each was rewarded with a certificate stating that a tree had been planted in Israel with the funds they provided.  The beautiful lush forests and orchards in modern Israel are testimony to the success of that effort. In those early years, many people during their first trip to Israel would ask to see “their tree” – but it was impossible to identify individual trees that had been established with particular donations.

Many Jewish holidays incorporate fruit and nuts into festival meals and traditions.  On Passover, a sweet mixture of chopped fruits and nuts, called “charoset,” offsets the taste of horseradish, eaten to remember the bitterness of slavery.  On the spiritual New Year, Rosh HaShanah, apples dipped in honey are served to wish the family and guests a sweet year the year round. In the fall at the festival of Sukkot (tabernacles), branches of the myrtle, willow and date palm are bundled together and, along with the fruit of the citron tree. are used in a celebratory ritual.

Not only do trees and fruit play an important role in Jewish holidays, but they have been awarded a holiday of their own – the New Year of the Trees. The holiday is commonly called Tu B’Shevat, which means the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, the date of the holiday on the Hebrew lunar calendar. On the secular calendar, Tu B’Shevat falls in January or February. While in some places, such as Mexico City, the temperature on Tu B’Shevat can be bitter cold and the trees still dormant, and in other places such as coastal Oaxaca the weather can be witheringly hot and dry, in Israel or Guadalajara Tu B’Shevat is a time when trees begin to flower.

Tu B’Shevat is celebrated in different ways depending on the community. Many communities essentially celebrate an Earth Day, providing information about sustainable growing methods.

Others hold seders, which are meals incorporating seven species of fruits and grains mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. Some communities in temperate climates plant trees, while other communities raise funds for planting trees in Israel. Almost everyone celebrating Tu B’Shevat eats fruit.

One of our favorite Tu B’Shevat celebrations took place in Huatulco with The Eye staff and their partners. Everyone brought a dish made with fruit for brunch – a delicious variety of salads, frittatas, salsas, cakes and cookies. We talked about and sampled four kinds of fruit and compared them to human personalities – hard on the outside but soft inside; soft on the outside but hard on the inside; soft on the outside and inside; and hard on the outside and inside. And then everyone told a story about a favorite tree they remembered from a period in their life.

Tu B’Shevat is a relatively minor holiday. It is not mentioned in the Scriptures but rather was discussed by rabbis in the Talmud – Jewish oral tradition written down around the year 500. But for those of us who love trees, it is a wonderful time to appreciate their diversity and the bounty they provide and to commit ourselves to their protection.