Bob Schwartz

Tag: Christmas

Only Candles Only Stars

 

Stars

Only Candles Only Stars

Let there be lights (מארת) in the vault of the heavens … and they shall be lights (מאורת) in the vault of the heavens (Genesis 1:14-16)

All of the lights
On the candles, trees, houses
Beneficial artifice
The best we can do.
Even the stars
Awakening guiding
Are incomplete.

The light that eludes
In the dark cold of winter
Hiding in plain sight.

Light the Icicle

icicles

Happy Hanukkah. Happy Christmas.


The Icicle

A zaddik told:

“On a winter’s day, I went to the bath with the master. It was so cold that icicles hung from the roofs. We entered and as soon as he did the Unification, the bath grew warm. He stood in the water for a very long time, until the candle began to drip and gutter. ‘Rabbi,’ I said, ‘the candle is guttering and going out.’

‘Fool,’ he answered, ‘take an icicle from the roof and light it! He who spoke to the oil and it leaped into flame, will speak to this too, and it will kindle.’ The icicle burned brightly for a good while, until I went home, and when I got home there was a little water in my hand.”

Martin Buber,  Tales of the Hasidim


“People ask, ‘What is the Buddha?’ An icicle forming in fire.”

Dogen Zenji

Syria: Things Fall Apart

I just checked to see how many posts I’ve published about or mentioning Syria. Twenty in the last four years.

Just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it does. When you think that nobody has “the answer” you are proven right. Again.

The oldest of the posts is Can Israel Stop the Syrian Genocide? (“Can Israel stop the Syrian genocide? On its face, the question seems practically preposterous and crazy….But in a world and region that continues to exhibit madness, maybe moments of crazy wisdom are what we need to break through. Because whatever we are doing isn’t working.”)

Of course, Israel wasn’t about to stop the Syrian madness, and hasn’t. Neither have we or any other nation, and neither are we or any other nation sure what to do—not only to stop the madness but to relieve the ongoing dismal and heartbreaking aftermath.

So we watch. It’s not the first time in our lifetimes, or in history, that good people have stood by uncertainly at the sight of spiraling tragedy and could not act or figure out what to do.

William Butler Yeats wrote The Second Coming in 1919, as the madness of World War I was just ended and the madness of the Irish War of Independence was just beginning. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” As Yeats saw it, one cycle was ending in utter darkness, but there was the possibility of light appearing again in history, as it had before.

This is a season of light for many people, but in Syria it is getting darker every day. We will do what we can, but if we and our leaders can do nothing, we can at least keep Syria in our hearts, right next to a burning light.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Eight Ways of Hanukkah

happy-hanukkah

Hanukkah, which begins at sunset with the lighting of the first candle, may be the most interesting, confusing, and confused of Jewish holidays. Let me count the ways.

1. It is the most historic of the traditional Jewish holidays. The historicity of more important holidays is somewhat shrouded in antiquity, bible stories, and faith. We have a pretty good chronicle of the events commemorated by Hanukkah: the Jewish rebellion of around 163 BCE led by the Maccabee family against the Seleucid/Syrian occupiers of Israel.

2. The best chronicle of Hanukkah is found in the Books of Maccabees. Maccabees is found in the bible, but because of textual happenstance, not in the Jewish Bible. Books of Maccabees are part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bibles, and are apocryphal books of the Protestant bible. But the Jewish biblical canon (the books officially included) was closed before these books were available. So if Jews want to read this particular biblical story, they have to turn to Christian bibles. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

3. Hanukkah is probably not just about the Maccabees. As with other holidays, including Christmas, it is likely a melding of other seasonal celebrations at that time of year.

4. Because Hanukkah is extra-biblical, it did not achieve the stature of other holidays. You will often see it referred to as a “minor” holiday. In baseball terms, though, Hanukkah is at least AAA minor league, that is, completely ready to play in the majors. Which, as it turned out, it kind of does.

5. How Hanukkah became a much more important holiday than ever is covered by the wonderful book Hanukkah in America. For one thing, the original story of the Maccabees is about fighting not just the occupiers but the tendency of Jews in that situation toward assimilation and Hellenization. This obviously resonated in America, where secular culture and particularly Christmas became a juggernaut.

6. The candelabra used on Hanukkah for the eight nights of lights is usually referred to, by Jews and non-Jews alike, as a menorah. This is not exactly right. A menorah is a lamp, more particularly the seven-armed lamp that is an abiding symbol of Judaism and Israel. The lamp lit at Hanukkah is more properly called a hanukkiah. But hardly ever is.

7. The spelling of the word Hanukkah in English remains an unsettled mess. “Hanukkah” is now prevalent, but there is still plenty of the older “Chanukah” or, less likely, “Chanukkah” or other variations. The problem stems from trying to transliterate a Hebrew word into English—especially a word that has the guttural “ch” sound not heard in English (that is, not “ch” as in China). But as the saying goes: You can spell it Hanukkah or Chanukah, just don’t call me late for latkes. (No, that’s not an actual saying.)

8. This is from a little book that is a century old. The Hanukkah Festival: Outline of Lessons for Teachers (1914) was published by The Teachers’ Institute of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and written by Rabbi Louis Grossmann, its principal. One of the benedictions for lighting the candles goes well beyond Judaism, history, or faith. It should work for just about anyone, tonight and every night.

Eight days long the Lights burned in the homes of our Fathers, and eight days long they rejoiced. One little flask of sacred oil was enough to illumine the Temple and to keep it bright. So each one of us may gladden those with whom we are, and the Light within our heart may make bright all who are about us.

Happy Hanukkah.

Return to the Four Freedoms

Four Freedoms

As we approach the holiday season, we might think about the big metaphorical American family gathering around the big metaphorical American table. One thing you notice, as with a lot of families and tables, is that there’s going to be a few disagreements, some pretty heated.

But at some point, in keeping with the spirit of the season, the family will be looking for common ground, those shared ideals that unite us. Unfortunately, we seem to be losing sight of those ideals because, to be honest, it isn’t always clear what they are.

In early 1941, while war was already raging in Europe, but almost a year before Pearl Harbor, FDR gave one of the most famous speeches of the era and of American history. It was the 1941 State of the Union address, but it will always be known as the Four Freedoms speech. To bolster American support for our almost inevitable involvement in the war, he enunciated the Four Freedoms we would be fighting for: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression — everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants — everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor — anywhere in the world.

Art turned out to play an important role in keeping these ideals front and center, especially as the prospect of American sacrifice became a reality. The most famous example may be a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell (above), who was then and maybe still the greatest American illustrator. The Library of Congress explains:

Taken from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 speech to Congress, the “Four Freedoms” –Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear–became a rallying point for the United States during WWII. Artist Norman Rockwell created four vignettes to illustrate the concepts. Rockwell intended to donate the paintings to the War Department, but after receiving no response, the painter offered them to the Saturday Evening Post, where they were first published on February 20, 1943. Popular reaction was overwhelming, and more than 25,000 readers requested full-color reproductions suitable for framing.

Some will say that these Four Freedoms are today “controversial” because we don’t seem to be able as a nation—as an American family—to agree on the strategies to maintain and attain those ideals. Those disagreements are undeniable, as are the related invective, disparagement, and even hatefulness that goes with them. But those disagreements can’t make us give up. On the contrary, they should send us back to the words of FDR, getting past the ideologies and labels, and really look within and at the family of Americans.

Do you really believe that these ideals are exclusive to you, and not shared by others of good will? Are your principles and affiliations so very important that you would sacrifice those ideals to be “right?” Or can we come to the table, dig deeper, and not leave until we have given up a little of our own self-importance and focused instead on getting a little closer to the country and world envisioned in the shared Four Freedoms? And maybe just a little closer to each other?

The Magi

Journey of the Magi
The magi are for everyone, whatever your beliefs.

These three figures in the Christmas tradition appear in only one of the four Christian gospels, and even that role in Matthew is sketchy. They are foreigners bringing gifts for the infant Jesus and they return home by a different route to evade Herod. That’s it.

Translations and interpretations of what they brought vary, and even less clear is exactly who these foreigners were supposed to be in the story. They may be kings, wise men, astrologers or, as some have it, Zoroastrian priests from Persia.

This is why the particulars don’t matter much at all: the story is so basic and illuminating that it has captured the imagination of millions in its various retellings. Christian faithful have one view of it, and the more literal vision is that of concrete history. But for those who lean away from that, there is much to be gotten out of this compelling story:

  • Some people of discernment—in terms of wisdom, astrology or otherwise—had a sense that something special was going on outside of their ordinary sphere. Maybe they saw a light.
  • They travelled a long way to discover what was going on, and having found out, expressed their gratitude humbly and generously.

Again, that’s it. Some may want to think about theology. Others may want to think about other sorts of lights they’ve glimpsed, journeys they’ve made or haven’t made, and about possibilities. Christmas or just winter solstice and New Year, there is no better time to think about possibilities and all the rest.

T.S. Eliot wrote a brief but cinematic poem about the magi. It is written from a believer’s perspective, as the magi suffer twice, once on the journey, once again when they return home and find themselves so spiritually transformed by the experience that they feel like strangers in their own land. This is certainly a Christian view of the holiday, but non-Christians may just as well consider the more general phenomenon of all sorts of enlightenment, sitting between the way you have been and the way you discover you could be or already are. The magi say they would be glad of another death like that.

The Journey of the Magi
T.S. Eliot

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Thanksgiving and Hanukkah in America: A History

Hanukkah in America
Hanukkah is getting lots more attention this year than it usually does, because it starts on Thanksgiving, rather than on or about Christmas.

This is nearly unprecedented. Of course there’s lots of controversy about just how rare it is, partly because Thanksgiving has officially moved from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday, partly because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, partly because of some esoterica of interest to extreme calendar freaks. Some say it won’t happen again for 70,000 years, others say it will never, ever happen again. If you happen to be around when it does, if it does, please e-mail, post, tweet, or whatever sort of advanced messaging will be used then to communicate with the curious but departed.

Thanksgivingukkah, or whatever other ridiculous and ear-hurting names people are coming up with, is second only to Black Friday as a cultural meme this week. We will be seeing lots of turkeys with Hanukkah candles stuck in them—actual ones, not just Photoshopped ones, at actual Thanksgiving tables, with plenty of videos to prove it. Might even see some turkey selfies. On the food front, we will have combined cuisines, where things not usually seen on the Thanksgiving table make an appearance, such as latkes and sour cream. (Note: I am promoting latke stuffing as the best of all possible hybrids.)

There’s a lot to talk about when Hanukkah and Christmas collide and coincide, theologically, historically and socially. Both involve charismatic Jewish religious leaders taking on tyranny—though one battles on the military and political front, while the other wields an entirely different set of weapons. As a central theme, both at some point take on the profaning of the Temple, in one case made unholy by soldiers, in the other made unholy by turning sacred space into a commercial enterprise. Both involve miracles and miraculous lights challenging the darkness. Not to mention that at the time of Jesus, Jews knew and marked the events of the Maccabee revolution, which had taken place less than two hundred years earlier.

Whether you are Jewish, or just newly fascinated by Hanukkah because it is for once not getting lost in the Christmas mishegas (“craziness” in Yiddish), have I got a book for you. Hanukkah in America: A History by Dianne Ashton is more than just a review of how American Jews regarded and celebrated this once-minor holiday. It is the definitive and delightful book about how Hanukkah evolved to become a laboratory for what it means to be a Jew in America, and for that matter what it means to be Americans of any kind.

Here’s something Ashton writes about Thanksgiving and the “deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner”:

Many Jews combined food products available in America with recipes they deemed appropriate for Hanukkah meals. Even with a simple meal at home, immigrants could imagine a different Hanukkah past than the one in Eastern Europe. They could envision a personal bond with Judah Maccabee by selecting Carmel wine, which claimed to be “what the Maccabees drank.” Local food shops such as Goldman’s Tea and Coffee Store held special sales in honor of Sabbath Hanukkah. Jewish restaurateurs sometimes targeted immigrants’ desires for American foods at special occasions. Perhaps no food is so identified with America as the turkey, an animal native to North America and the featured dish of the Thanksgiving dinners that take place across the country only a few weeks before Hanukkah. When Gorfein’s, a kosher restaurant, advertised a deluxe Hanukkah turkey dinner in the Forverts, it apologized in print the next day to “hundreds [who had to be] turned away” because the restaurant “had no space or food left for them.” Gorfein’s offered the same dinner a second night.

My usual Hanukkah post, sometime around Christmas, ends with a mention of a wonderful Comedy Central special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All. Our comic saviors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert perform the song Can I Interest You In Hanukkah? with Stewart making the case for the Jewish holiday:

Jon: Can I interest you in Hanukkah? Maybe something in a Festival of Lights. It’s a sensible alternative to Christmas. And it lasts for seven – for you – eight nights.
Stephen: Hanukkah huh? I’ve never really thought about it.
Jon: Well, you could do worse.
Stephen: Is it merry?
Jon: It’s kind of merry.
Stephen: Is it cheery?
Jon: It’s got some cheer.
Stephen: Is it jolly?
Jon: Look, I wouldn’t know from jolly. But it’s not my least unfavorite time of year.
Stephen: When’s it start?
Jon: The 25th.
Stephen: Of December?
Jon: Kislev.
Stephen: Which is when exactly?
Jon: I will check
Stephen: Are there presents?
Jon: Yes, indeed eight days of presents. Which means one nice one, then a week of dreck.
Stephen: Does Hanukkah commemorate events profound and holy? A king who came to save the world?
Jon: No, oil that burned quite slowly.
Stephen: Well, it sounds fantastic!
Jon: There’s more. We have latkes.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Potato pancakes. We have dreidels.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: Wooden tops. We have candles.
Stephen: What are they?
Jon: THEY ARE CANDLES! And when we light them, oh the fun it never stops. What do you say, Stephen, do you want to give Hanukkah a try?
Stephen: I’m trying see me as a Jew. I’m trying even harder. But I believe in Jesus Christ
So it’s a real non-starter.
Jon: I can’t interest you in Hanukkah? Just a little bit?
Stephen: No thanks I’ll pass. I’ll keep Jesus, you keep your potato pancakes. But I hope that you enjoy ‘em on behalf of all of the goyim.
Jon: Be sure to tell the Pontiff, my people say “good yontif”.
Stephen: That’s exactly what I’ll do.
Both: Happy holidays, you
Jon: too!
Stephen: Jew!
Jon: Too?

That’s it for this holiday mashup. Read the book; it’s great. Celebrate religious freedom by eating too much food. Spin the turkey. Light the candles. But whatever you do, don’t smoke the turkey, because it is impossible to keep that thing lit.

Happy holidays. Be safe.

Corcovado Christmas

Corcovado
It is mid-holiday in the northern tier of North America, caught between Christmas and the New Year.

There is no longer a calendar for Christmas music. Around the world there are radio stations that play Christmas yearlong (hear Radio Santa from Finland), and just as shopping has moved back to Halloween, Jingle Bells seems to have moved with it. Right now, it still sounds like a holiday.

It feels like a holiday too. In the Northern hemisphere, winter has begun, and depending on where you are, it may be cool, cold, or frigid.

In the Southern hemisphere, Christmas comes at the start of summer. To capture that, step away from Christmas music, and walk in the snow and listen to Astrud Gilberto singing Corcovado.

Corcovado is a mountain in Rio, the city’s most famous attraction. A 125-foot statue of Jesus sits atop it, which makes it more than appropriate for this holiday.

Brazil is also famous for Bossa Nova, one of the world’s most seductive and transfixing beats and styles. As glorious as ever, Bossa Nova is not quite as celebrated as it was in the 1960s, when it was a certifiable musical craze. Craziest of all was Astrud Gilberto singing and Stan Getz playing The Girl from Ipanema, a song about a famous beach.

The father of Bossa Nova, and the composer of both Ipanema and Corcovado, was Antonio Carlos (Tom) Jobim (1927-1994). One of the great songwriters of his era, Jobim’s songs were covered by all the great singers. Corcovado was one of those songs, known by its English title, Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.

Astrud Gilberto was one of his greatest interpreters, though she may not have had the voice of Frank Sinatra. Her voice, more than a whisper, less than force, captures a simple warm ease that is irresistible, the very same power that Jobim put in the music, the same promise of a Brazilian vision of Christmas. The Portuguese makes it that much lovelier and warmer. What cold? What snow?

Quiet nights of quiet stars,
Quiet chords from my guitar,
Floating on the silence that surrounds us.
Quiet thoughts and quiet dreams,
Quiet walks by quiet streams,
And window looking so to Corcovado,
Oh how lovely.