Oh, Hanukkah Songs! Where Are You?

hanukkahsongsby Rabbi Wendy Spears

As December rolled around each year while I was growing up, I remember my mom decorating for Hanukkah. We had a large and beautiful Star of David decoration, crusted with blue and silver garland and covered with blue light bulbs. While my family slept, I frequently crept out of my bedroom to switch on the electricity for the star and sit in the darkened living room with it. I thought about all the Christians who were celebrating the Christmas season with joyful energetic songs.

But the Hanukkah songs I heard growing up were the same five tired songs, over and over: Rock of Ages, I Had a Little Dreidel, Who Can Retell?, Hanukkah O Hanukkah, Hanukkah A Beautiful Holiday. Yuck! Their energy pales in comparison to the songs my family and I celebrate with now, such as Tom Lehrer’s Hanukkah in Santa Monica. It didn’t make it better to hear those old songs in Hebrew as well as English, or to be told that Hanukkah was a minor holiday in Judaism over which we shouldn’t really make a fuss. I always yearned for great Hanukkah songs in English that I could sing in December. I dreamed that they would add more musical joy to my family’s Hanukkah parties.

Music is so important to my spirituality. I remember things better when they are set to music. When I attend worship services at synagogue, it is the music that takes me to a feeling of connection to God and community. The words of the prayers don’t feel nearly as beautiful or spiritual without an accompanying melody. I remember the prayers with the music; when I’m trying to recall a particular phrase, I sing to myself in my head (don’t you sing the alphabet song when trying to remember the order of the letters?).

I was uplifted in 1983 when Peter Yarrow (of the folk music trio Peter, Paul, and Mary) wrote the Hanukkah song Light One Candle. It was the beginning of what has become a treasury of new Hanukkah songs in English for an American audience. My current playlist includes 38 songs. I am so excited to share them at my family’s Hanukkah party. The Indigo Girls version of Woody Guthrie’s Happy Joyous Hanukkah gets my toes tapping. Kenny Ellis’ Hanu-Calypso on the album Hanukkah Swings makes me want to get up and dance. I can easily sing along with Joe Black (Eight Nights of Joy) which brings a smile to my face. Check out Be A Light from Neal Katz for exactly the right spirit to make a happy family celebration of Hanukkah.

These new Hanukkah songs are accessible and add obvious joy to the holiday. They add an extra sizzle to my Hanukkah party as the potato latkes (pancakes) sizzle in the frying pan. I listen to them in the car during December as I go to meetings or on my errands. I am enthusiastic about sharing them with my friends and family members. They are available on iTunes. Like my Facebook page Interfaith Wedding Rabbi – Rabbi Wendy Spears and find more Hanukkah songs there.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

The Spirituality of Community

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

Lots of people tell me that they are spiritually and culturally Jewish, but not connected to synagogues. It makes me wonder what this is about. As a Jew, it is so important to me to be a part of a community, and the synagogues are mostly the only shows in town. I ponder about spirituality separate from community. I’m not convinced a person can live a Jewish life separate from community.

I’ve written quite a bit about spirituality lately without really putting forward a definition. So here is my current working definition of spirituality. It is my sense of oneness and belonging with all that exists. According to the Hasidic master Dov Baer of Mezritch, we are all individual waves in the ocean of existence (thanks to my mentor Rabbi Ted Falcon for teaching me this). We often feel as if we are separate entities racing pell-mell toward shore; yet, when we turn around, we see that we are connected to the vastness of the waters. In addition, spirituality is my feeling of awe at beholding the grandeur of the natural world. It is also my feeling of wonder when beholding great works of art, both visual and auditory, and the miracles of modern medicine and technology. But Jewishly, these feelings are rather flat without others with whom to share them.

In the biblical book of Genesis (2:18), we learn that it isn’t good for a person to be alone; each person needs a fitting helper who reflects back the individual’s truth, standing opposite yet lovingly with his/her partner. This Jewish value is deeply a part of me. While other religious and spiritual traditions value extended periods of time that a person should spend alone to gain new spiritual understandings (such as taking a hermitage retreat), this hasn’t been an active aspect of Judaism. Life is with people, including all the messy emotions, thoughts, and physical connections. I learn from the wisdom literature to share good food and good conversation around a table, to love one another, and to do work that makes the world a better place. All activities experienced in the company of others.

Personally, I am most spiritually satisfied when I share important moments with others. Holidays, Sabbath, weddings, funerals, baby welcome ceremonies, study, are all more fun and meaningful to me in community. For me, spirituality, community, and Judaism are all interconnected. In the same way that you can’t pluck a wave from the ocean, you can’t really separate these three from each other. Celebrations and difficulties are shared, so the joys are greater and the challenges are less burdensome. What is your experience?

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a long-time community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.
#spirituality #community #Judaism #rabbi #interfaith

Thanksgiving 3 Ways

The-Shiksas-Sukkah-2012by Rabbi Wendy Spears

One of the things I love about Judaism is its emphasis on joy and gratitude. We are encouraged to see our lives as blessings. In America, we have the opportunity to cultivate an attitude of gratitude in the celebration of holidays. Pretty much everyone celebrates Thanksgiving, eagerly anticipating their favorite dishes – like marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes and green bean casserole with crispy onions. Similarly, the most well-known of the Jewish harvest holidays currently is Passover when we anticipate eating matzah ball soup with friends and family around the holiday table after we’ve told the story of the Exodus from Egypt. But it wasn’t always this way.

The Bible puts the autumn harvest of Sukkot front and center (also called Tabernacles in English). It was so important that it was often referred to as “THE Holiday.” Everyone who was anyone made sure to show up for Sukkot in Jerusalem when the Temple existed. Needs on every level were met – physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. I imagine there were parades, and shows, and parties every night in addition to the sensory spectacle at the Temple itself. People brought the best of their harvests to share, just as we aspire to bring the most delicious food to our sukkah.

The Sukkot holiday was so important during the biblical period that when the Maccabees conquered the Assyrian Greek garrison in Jerusalem and regained control of the Temple in December of that year, the holiday for which they rededicated (Hanukkah) the Temple was Sukkot. As my teacher Michael Zeldin taught my classmates and me, it was “Sukkot in December.” Since Sukkot was of 8 days duration, so is Hanukkah of 8 days duration. Sukkot is the bigger holiday, and we’ve lost sight of that in the way we celebrate Hanukkah in America due to its proximity to Christmas and that holiday’s influence on consumerism.

During much of Sukkot, my family and I host potluck dinners for friends and extended family members in our backyard sukkah (temporary shelter). We share news of the day and of our lives, and talk about our gratitude for our abundance and good fortune. We are mostly blessed with good health, ample livelihoods, meaningful relationships, and the ability to share delicious food and intelligent conversation around the holiday table. We are aware of all this wonder, and try to articulate our great appreciation for it.. Being outside gives us the opportunity to be a little bit more in tune with our environment. I am truly grateful for all the farmers, harvesters, truckers, and grocers who help bring food to my table. I’m aware, too, during California’s drought, how challenging this all is.

As American Jews, we are triply fortunate to be able to celebrate our gratitude for 3 months in a row. First comes Sukkot in October, then Thanksgiving in November, and Hanukkah in December. While everyone is familiar with traditional Thanksgiving dishes and Hanukkah latkes (potato pancakes), not so many of us are as aware of the abundance on our tables and with each other right now. This is a time of creativity and experimentation in creating something truly delicious to share. As I visit the farmers’ markets, I see 5 of the traditional 7 Species of the Jewish homeland available: grapes, pomegranates, figs, olives, and dates (the other 2 are barley which is harvested at Passover, and wheat which is harvested at Shavuot and here at Sukkot). There are also numerous varieties of apples, squashes, sweet potatoes, savory potatoes, and onions. I like butternut squash soup with pomegranate garnish; my family enjoys savory top sirloin with roasted potatoes and figs. This variety extends to our personal connections, with friends old and new, and our family. We tell our stories and reminisce about holidays and loved ones from years past. This time is precious and ephemeral. I am cultivating an attitude of gratitude more and more with my words and my actions. I am thankful for my many blessings.

#Sukkot #Thanksgiving #SquashSoup #7Species

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.

The Newness of Choosing Life

“Choosing life” gained a whole new meaning for me this year.

On September 2, my son was getting ready for his first day of kindergarten.  As I saw my mommy friends around me preparing and anticipating, I felt as if I was standing on the outside looking in.  I should have been worrying about books and notebooks and bags.  Instead, I sat waiting for a phone call, a phone call which would tell me if my grandmother, Grandma Arlene, had survived the night.  My friends were counting hours until the beginning, while I was counting hours and days since she had had her last bite of food, her last sip of water.  Days without nourishment.  Weeks of knowing that a phone call would be coming.  Hours of joining my parents, my aunts, my sister at different moments in a bedside vigil.

I wanted to be there for my son with all a mother feels and experiences as her first child begins kindergarten.  I wanted to embrace the key experiences that encompass that first day:  the new, pristine outfit worn for the first time, the moment he stepped on that school bus and turned around for one last good-bye, the expression on his face as he bounded off the bus after a long first day.  I wanted to be there and truly be present, but I was scared that it had become impossible.

How could I focus on the world of the living as I continued to wait for the inevitable moment when I knew I would lose my grandmother forever?

“I call heaven and earth as witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). On this Yom Kippur, as we read these words once again, they have come to have an entirely new and different meaning for me.

I saw this choice so clearly before me that day:  life and death.  Could I embrace the life around me or would I just collapse in the despair of loss?

What is remarkable about this passage is that it allows for both.  The statement acknowledges the reality that, in life, we experience the good and the bad, the blessing and the curse.  We live with loss and pain and despair just as we live with joy and comfort and hope.  And there are moments when the choice to embrace the latter in the face of the former becomes that much more difficult.

And so I awoke on the morning my son would begin school and I sat with my little boy as he ate his breakfast, laughed with him as he amused us both with his usual morning silliness and hugged him as he stepped onto that bus.  I did my best to choose life.  And I continue to struggle to do the same, embracing life not in the absence of death, but as I sit engulfed in its reality; choosing life for myself and for him.  And in making that decision, maybe, just maybe I will be carrying forward the life that my grandmother has given us both—her strength, her strong opinions (as anyone who knew her knew well), and her fervent hugs—the pieces of her which are a part of us today and will continue to be a part of us even now that she is gone.


My grandmothers, Grandma Arlene on the left and Grandma Horty on the right, when my son was 1 month old.  My Grandma Arlene died on September 7.  Zichrona Livracha. 

All of Us: A D’var Torah on Netzavim-Vayelech

U.S. Embassy, Tel Aviv, 9/3/2012

Today you are standing, all of you, before the Eternal your God — your chieftains, your tribes, your leaders and your officers — all the men of Israel,  along with your little ones, your women and your resident aliens here with you in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water. – Deuteronomy 20:9-10

When Moses officiated at the solemn ceremony of the covenant between God and Israel described in Deuteronomy he began with this preamble. The verb netzavim has a special meaning that mere “standing” doesn’t fully convey. The people are officially present to make a sacred promise. The closest usage of “stand” in English is “to take a stand.” The People of Israel are not just hanging out; they are ritually and officially present to take action.

In case “all of you” might be mistaken for “just the guys,” Moses made it clear that he meant everyone from the heads of the clans to the lowest hanger-on. He is specific: all the men, plus children, women, and foreigners, including day laborers. This vow was not to be taken by proxy: no one “stood in” for anyone else. No one is “understood” to be there, and no one is excluded.

In other words, everyone mattered. The covenant is both communal and personal, and no one is left out. There are no second-class Jews in the eyes of God.

A version of this d’var Torah appeared on Rabbi Adar’s blog Coffee Shop Rabbi.


Far Too Busy?

spinningby Rabbi Wendy Spears

The High Holy Days season is the most frenetic for rabbis as they prepare for the largest crowds of the year attending synagogue worship. In addition to writing and editing multiple sermons, rabbis are also focused on the opening of synagogue membership season. New folks are coming in the doors to check out what the synagogue can offer them, while veteran members are re-evaluating their involvement in on-going activities. As a community rabbi rather than a synagogue rabbi, I am a step removed from this although I see my colleagues trying to juggle a lot of plates.

The end of August and beginning of September is also the time many families make the transition from the relative relaxation of summer schedules to the fast-paced action of the new school year with its requisite renewal of sports practice, music and art lessons, homework, and Hebrew practice. I see many of my friends consumed by busy-ness. Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte writes about all of this frenetic activity in her new book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything on the to-do list completed.

Happily, I find myself in a very different place. I’ve entered a new chapter in my life in which I am succeeding in putting mindfulness into practice. I have one child in college and the other in high school. They have begun to take charge of their own activities. The hard physical work on my part of their early childhoods is completed, as is the need for constant conversation to stimulate their developing brains. I am devoting more time to my rabbinate, to my enjoyment of attending cultural activities with my husband, and to my own spiritual sustenance. I take time to reflect and be present much more in the moment. I used to admire my colleague Rabbi Akiva Annes, of blessed memory, for his ability to do this on a regular basis. As Brigid Schulte writes, “Without time to reflect, to live fully present in the moment and face what is transcendent about our lives, we are doomed to live in purposeless and banal busyness. Then we starve the capacity we have to love. It creates this ‘unquiet heart’ that is ever desperate for fulfillment.”

With Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, beginning on the evening of September 24, we have a tremendous opportunity to be present in moments of holiness within community. It is the time to begin reflecting on what we’ve accomplished and experienced this past year and to rejoice in that, while also recognizing the mistakes and hurts we’ve caused others and to make amends. I plan to read again the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes during the many moments of silence during worship. The wisdom literature attempts to teach us how to live a good life when we know that the people and things in this life are ephemeral. Much of the literature sounds as if it was written today rather than thousands of years ago.

While many people I know complain about being too busy, I find that I’ve really stopped feeling that way and saying those words. I make time for what’s important to me, whether it’s for myself or to spend with friends and family. As I think back on this odyssey of raising my children, I didn’t over schedule them with sports, lessons, and other activities. I tried to leave them enough time to just be. Sometimes we went on field trips to explore the culture of Los Angeles. Most often, we were at home on the weekends and available to each other or to be with friends and extended family.

While it’s in my nature to push forward and get a lot of stuff done, I’ve tried over the past year to stop cramming so much into each minute of the day. Previously, I was constantly looking at the clock, trying to determine how much I could get done before the next activity or appointment. I was consistently late, and I really hate being late. This year, I’ve been a bit easier on myself and have even left some things on my to-do list undone. I’ve started to exercise again and have let go of some hobbies. I can honestly say that I feel calmer, even though my calendar of activities looks as full now as it did last year. And I feel more prepared and eager for the opportunity for spiritual introspection on these quickly approaching High Holy Days.

#overwhelmed #busy #roshhashanah #rabbis #highholydays #mindfulness

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com

One Land, Two Conflicting Stories

by Rabbi Wendy Spears

It seems like everyone has become an expert in how to solve the crisis between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. With the 24/7 news cycle, the myriad details of this issue are examined, analyzed, and discussed ad nauseum. It is very easy to be an armchair critic from afar. However, there is no easy solution for this complex problem.

There are two groups of people who claim ownership of the country Israel: Jews and Arabs. Both groups claim to be indigenous people, and it doesn’t much matter which group was there first since both are there now. Jews claim the land based on the biblical and historical narrative that this is the place God promised to the descendants of Abraham. While much of the Jewish population was exiled from the land by the Romans, a remnant remained. It was the Romans who changed the name of the place from Judea to Palestina (a variant of Philistia, one of Judea’s enemies), as an insult to the conquered population.

The Jewish story has been one of longing to return to Israel over the course of their history from the Roman period onward. Jews lived in their ancient homeland under the governance of the Ottoman Turks and under the British Mandate. They accepted the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947 to apportion the land to both the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs.

The Arab story is that they, too, are the indigenous people in the land and see themselves also as descendants of Abraham. Like the Ottoman Turks and the British, they see the Jews as European imperialist usurpers who must be expelled rather than tolerated. They don’t consider Jews to be indigenous people like themselves. They didn’t accept the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan.

These two narratives don’t combine well, and have been the underlying reason for the continuing conflict between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Jews have given land for peace: the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt in 1982 and is Jew-free; Gaza was given to the Palestinian Arabs in 2005 and is Jew-free, and currently controlled by Hamas. A portion of the West Bank is under the control of Fatah.

But there is suddenly a glimmer of hope for peace. Mahmoud Abbas, the official voice for Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank said in an interview with Ha’Aretz newspaper in Israel (July 8, 2014), “I am totally committed to the vision of a two-state solution, normalization and peace with our neighbor – Israel.” http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/israel-peace-conference/1.603723 Pretty astonishing, considering the history and the current conflict being staged by Hamas.

I continue to pray for peace between Israel and all her Arab neighbors. May it come soon in our lifetime.

#peace #Israel #Palestine #Hamas #Fatah #Abbas #MidEastConflict

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com