EIGHT MONTHS LATER (oops), here we are.
Some of these questions are from last time, some are from emails I’ve gotten since then, and some are from Twitter. I’ve noticed a glut of questions related to Jewish weddings, so I’m going to handle those in a separate post. Without further ado: The second installment of Ask! A! Jew!
1) What do Jewish people do on Christmas Day? Do you just do whatever you'd do on a normal day -- you know, wash some dishes, watch some TV, do some laundry, hang out on the couch? Do you get together with family since everyone already has the day off work anyway? Do you ever think "ooh, maybe I'll go to Target, oh crap, I can't, it's closed for Christmas Day"? I've always wondered.
Great question! I think it’s best answered with the following Digital Short from SNL:
Okay, we don’t really go around circumcising squirrels in the park on Christmas (that’s more of a New Year’s thing), but there is SOME truth to the song: I recall consistently going to the movies on Christmas Eve, and getting Chinese food. Seriously, total cliché. Although I don’t celebrate the holiday, I am a big lover of Christmas lights, Christmas sales, Christmas music ("Little Drummer Boy"! "O Holy Night"! "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear"! "That Very Loud Song That I Think Is Called Carol of the Bells, But I’m Not Sure"!), and pretty much any exclamation involving the phrase “baby Jesus” so I anxiously await the start of the Christmas season each year. (Which, given the way retailers have been going lately, basically begins at some point in mid-July.) I also secretly hope for a White Christmas every year, because there is nothing more peaceful and restorative than walking in the snow through a frenetic city that, for one evening, at least, is blanketed in white and stillness.
In fact, the only thing I don’t like about Christmas? THIS SWEATER. Gap! This is Really Not Okay.
2) Would a Jewish person be offended if you accidentally said Happy Christmas to him/her? How would you respond? How would you want the OTHER person to respond?
I do believe the person who would get offended by this is the same type of person who would correct you if you erroneously said, “who” in place of “whom.” That is to say, a douche. I always smile and say, “Thanks, same to you!” Because who cares, really? Heartfelt wishes of merriness are always welcome in my book. And honestly, unless someone was obviously not celebrating Christmas (say, wearing a shirt that says, “Kwanza Kicks Ass!” or “Hats off to Hanukkah!”) I always say “Merry Christmas” to them instead of “Happy Holidays,” so I suppose I’m “guilty” of the same “offense” as you. (Slynnro, that was APPROPRIATE quotation mark usage in action, yes?)
3) Our neighbor said that she couldn't have "any food that rises," on Passover. Just curious why.
Passover is a week-long holiday that commemorates our exodus from enslavement in
Another explanation (and there ALWAYS is one) allows us to see this situation in a slightly more positive light: Matzah is plain, bland, and flat; it symbolizes our humble beginnings as slaves, and reminds us to be grateful for our freedom, and not be “puffed up” (metaphorically speaking) like bread and other leavened products.
4)What makes food kosher and how do you find it when you want it?
Okay, so this topic could be its own blog post, and the more I wrote about this, the weirder it sounded, so I’m going to try to tackle this very broadly. Kosher food in general means that it has been watched by someone called a “mashgiach” (almost like a food inspector) to make sure that no non-kosher products have been added. This doesn’t apply to basic things like fruits and vegetables, but like, prepared products, such as crackers. As for how you know if an item is kosher, it generally has a small, inconspicuous mark from one of the major organizations that food companies hire to ensure that their stuff is kosher. Here’s an example of one:
I realized I just made us sound quite shady, with our magical food marks and mysterious organizations. We’re not! I swear! It’s just an easy and convenient way for someone (who wishes to keep kosher) to tell, at a glance, if they can eat an item.
In terms of what would prevent something from being kosher, the rules are seemingly simple. IN GENERAL, they are: no mixing of meat and dairy products, no shellfish, no pig products, and no meat that has been improperly slaughtered (more on that in a minute). The complications stem from all the subsections of the broad prohibitions. For instance, Jello might seem innocuous, but a lot of gelatin comes from boiled animal bones, some of which may not be kosher. In order to know if you could eat it, someone observing the laws of keeping kosher would need to check for the aforementioned little “kosher” mark. Additionally, you can have a situation where you have two kosher items (kosher hamburger, kosher cheese), but together, they become un-kosher, due to the prohibition against mixing meat and milk products. And on that note, we wait a certain amount of time after having meat before we can have dairy products again.
In terms of the kosher meat thing, the cow (or lamb, or chicken, etc.) must be perfectly healthy and "unblemished." It must be slaughtered by someone who has been very specifically trained for this purpose, and who can only use a certain type of knife to do the job, one that allegedly causes the minimum amount of pain to the animal. And yes, kosher meat is crazy expensive. ORGANIC Kosher meat? YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW.
So, I’ve never had a cheeseburger, bacon, or any non-kosher meat. I’m admittedly more lax with certain other things...well, maybe "lax" isn't the best term, as I distinctly remember the first time I had a piece of non-kosher gum, and I became CONVINCED I would be Punished From Above for such wanton violation of my people’s laws. No, seriously. I kept looking up for lightning bolts.
(Speaking of food--AND SHAMESS PLUGS--I have a post up at Work It, Mom! with my new favorite fall recipe: Praline Sweet Potato Pie.)
5)What is the significance of the long beard and curly sideburns for men?
The curly sideburns stem from a biblical command for men not to shave the “corners of [your] head.” For modern Orthodox Jewish men (among them, my husband), this simply means not cutting your sideburns above the top of your cheekbone.) Which is really not noticeable at all, truthfully. The long sideburns you’re talking about are de rigeur in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. Inasmuch as the Bible wasn’t more specific (“do not shave the corners of your head BUT CUT THEM ONCE THEY REACH 4.5 INCHES,” for instance), the men there take the command literally, and let their sideburns grow very long. In order to keep them more…manageable, (I guess?) they curl them.
As for the long beard, I’m actually (gasp!) not sure about the answer; all I do know is that there is in fact no biblical requirement for this. Considering, however, that the long beard and sideburns tend to go hand in hand, particularly in the more insular ultra-Orthodox community, I’m going out on a limb here and saying that it’s a widely accepted custom that, regardless of origin, enables them to maintain a certain group conformity. (Anyone have a real answer here?)
6) Why can't you name your kid after anyone still alive? Is that just family?
In order to answer this, I must first point out the distinction between Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews (REPRESENT!) and Sephardic (Mediterranean and Middle Eastern) Jews. It’s not like the Sharks versus the Jets in West Side Story--While we have many different customs, we do follow the same basic laws. The manner in which we tend to name our kids is among the more major differences in our customs. Jews of Ashkenazi descent customarily name their children after relatives who have passed away, and Jews of Sephardic origin name after living relatives, in particular, the baby’s grandparents.
I think both customs are beautiful—naming a child for living relatives enables those people to get joy from seeing their namesake grow up, and bestowing the name of a loved one who has passed away is the very essence of a bittersweet experience. T was named for J’s father, and Lo is named for J’s grandmother. I knew both of them, and a part of me can’t help but think that they take extra special care to watch over their namesakes. Silly? Maybe. But I totally believe it.
7) Did you have a bat mitzvah theme?
Yes. It was called “OMG I LOVE PINK AND SILVER SOOOOOO MUCH AND ALSO TURQUOISE SO I WANT EVERYTHING TO BE PINK AND SILVER, LIKE MY PINK BAT MITZVAH DRESS WHICH IS EDGED IN SILVER AND MY SILVER SHOES BUT ALSO TO WORK IN MY LOVE OF TURQUOISE, I WANT THOSE SATIN YARMULKES (or “skullcaps”, head coverings that are handed out for men to wear at most ceremonial Jewish events) TO BE TURQUOISE I CAN’T BELIEVE IT THIS IS THE BEST PLAN EVER AND ALSO I AM TWELVE SO WHY THE FUCK IS ANYONE LENDING CREDENCE TO ANYTHING I SAY OH LOOK SAVED BY THE BELL IS ON.”
Huh. Well, I guess it wasn’t so much a theme, as it was an ill-advised plan, centering entirely on the flitting thoughts and tacky-ass taste of a pre-adolescent girl. (Tell me, are pictures of said event something—replete with seizure-inducing color scheme--you’d be interested in seeing?)
As mentioned, I’m already compiling the next (wedding-themed) “Ask a Jew” post, so feel free to pass along any Jewish wedding (or other!) questions you have.
My disclaimer from last time still applies:
I don’t claim to be an expert on anything but lipgloss, and certainly not such a weighty topic as Judaism. The answers to these questions were based in part on my general Judaic knowledge, but also my opinions and personal experiences. So if you think you’ve seen another explanation somewhere else? You very well may have. And they can both be right. In a nutshell: Don’t yell at me if you don't like my answer(s). Pretty please.