From Gelt To Tzedakah

Candlelighting has begun, which in my house also means nightly check-writing or on-line contributing. The following article by me and Jeffrey Dekro, originally published in Tikkun, tells why.

For a festival consigned by the Talmudic rabbis to “minor holiday” status, Hanukkah has asserted itself over the past generation as hugely popular folk holiday. Among contemporary American Jews, menorah-lighting at Hanukkah is second only to the Passover seder in popularity (77% of all-Jewish households and 59% of inter-marrieds light candles; the figures for seders are 86% and 68% respectively, according to the last major Jewish population survey, the 1990 Council of Jewish Federations study).

There are two obvious reasons for this success. First, Hanukkah’s largely secular/historical nature spares many Jews the struggle with doubt and ambivalence that they feel during most religious holidays. Second, the gift-giving, dreidl-playing, “child-friendly” atmosphere of Hanukkah put it on a par with its competitive twin, Christmas, as a “season to be jolly.” For Christians at Christmast, however, jolity is ideally a channel to generosity — the redemptive kind shown by Jesus to nearly all comers. By contrast, Hanukkah speaks of national redemption through ferocious military struggle. What is there in this tradition to turn jolity into generosity — particularly towards the non-Jewish world?

I suggest that the custom of giving Hanukkah gelt, small gifts of money, be transformed into a major Torah of Money effort during this Festival of Rededication. Each night, a different Hanukkah theme can be explored for the purpose of guiding a tzedakah decision. By combining end-of-the-tax-year charitable giving with Hanukkah themes, families can be true to the rabbinic tradition (which emphasizes both Torah study and tzedakah during this season) and greatly heighten the tikkun olam element of their observance. For example:

1. Hanukkah coincides with the darkest nights year and has roots in ancient winter solstice festivals. Devote a discussion to Judaism and ecological issues — and give tzedakah to an environmental group.

2. Hanukkah embodies its symbolism through foods, especially fried potatoes (Ashkenazic) and dough (Sephardic) to represent the “miracle of oil” at the rededication of the Temple. Talk about the symbolism of food brands and the realities of food budgets. What does it mean to try to feed a family for 63¢ per person per meal (estimate for a family of four living at the federal poverty level of $15,100)? Give tzedakah to a hunger relief project.

3. “Women are obligated to light the Hanukkah menorah,”’ says the Talmud (Shabbat 23a), for they took part in the miracle.” One story tells of the daughter of the high priest, facing violation by the Syrian-Greek governor, who shames her brothers into revolt. A second story “borrows” the saga of Judith cutting off the head of the Assyrian tyrant Holofernes. Dedicate one night to a discussion of women and resistance — and give tzedakah to a feminist organization.

4. Hanukkah was truly a minor holiday until the new Zionist movement at the turn of the century began promoting an ideal of self-defense. Talk about the meaning of Jewish self-defense and security today — and give tzedakah to an Israeli peace group.

5. The Hanukkah menorah is to be publicly displayed in a window or doorway. Discuss the realities of pride and persecution for Jews, gays and lesbians, and other minority groups — and give tzedakah to a civil rights organization.

6. Hanukkah is briefly debated in the Talmud: Shammai urges lighting the candles in diminishing order, while Hillel urges increasing the light each night. Discuss the role of interpretation and creativity in Judaism — and give tzedakah to a Jewish arts or renewal organization.

7. Hannah and her children suffer martyrdom; Mattathias and his children make the revolution. Discuss issues of generational differences and continuity in Jewish life — and give tzedakah to a youth-empowering organization.

8. The Miracle of Oil — one day’s worth burning for eight days — is a wonderful metaphor for how human beings must pool resources to create prosperity. Have a discussion about the meaning of community — and give tzedakah to a low-income community development project.

In the days of extensive Jewish poverty in Eastern Europe and Lower-East-Side America, Hanukkah gelt brought a moment of opportunity to children who rarely had a penny of their own. In contemporary times of Jewish prosperity, a reconstructed custom of Hanukkah gelt can bring moments of insight to both kids and adults, as they spread the light of Maccabean activism to the world beyond.


God Is Punishing Me

On Thursday more than $1,500 disappeared from my checking account and I got hit with six bank charges. (I think I must've entered one electronic paycheck twice in my ledger, but I'm not sure.) On Friday, I went to bring my 87-year-old mother to my house for her birthday and found her in her assisted living apartment, dazed and lying on the floor. Some stupid new medicine had totally buckled her legs and messed her mind. I brought her home anyway for "observation" and now I'm having to spend much of my weekend in the bathroom with her.

I was really feeling begrudging and hateful. . . and then today (I almost wrote, "Therefore,"), as I was backing my stick-shift Subaru out of my driveway, the gear shift got stuck; I thought the clutch cable had snapped (the car has logged 180,000 miles). I was blocking my own driveway, and in fifteen minutes I was expecting a shipment of lumber.

It all worked out. Capitalism bailed me out with a 0% until February, 2009 cash advance (you know, I could actually make money on these credit card companies if I'd take the advance and put it in a CD and be very careful about monitoring it, but I won't); my mother is recovering (and so am I); and the car popped back into gear (hopefully it was early morning frozen condensation, said the wood delivery guy; I haven't yet taken it for a test drive).

My magical mind nevertheless read it all as ominous. I felt as if God were punishing me for my evil thoughts about my mother. And thus I realized for the umpteenth time that one of the reasons I don't believe that there is a cosmic law of accountability and consequence (though there certainly IS a material reality to accountability and consequence — witness global warming!) is that this would be one hell of a scary world in which to be my very imperfect self.

Most folks I know, including the religious ones, don't think in such terms, about God's punishments and such. They have little relationship to what used to be called "the fear of God" (yirat shamayim). What they seem to seek is to get high on God, to get high on the spirituality of interconnection. For me, however, the God I don't believe in is a God who makes demands and commands my fear, and whom I would not want to meet in a dark alleyway.

Nu, most of that last paragraph was culled from p. 143 in my new book, Waiting for God, which you should all buy, to make up for that $1,500 shortfall and for all of my suffering.

It makes for good bathroom reading, with or without your mother.