Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is “Xmas” Disrespectful?

By Susan Esther Barnes

It being December, I’ve been seeing the word “Xmas” a lot lately. I have also been seeing the word “Xtian,” which I don’t remember seeing before. I’ve also been seeing some discussions on whether or not the use of these words instead of “Christmas” and “Christian” is rude or disrespectful. And it seems to me that all of these discussions are missing the point.

There seem to be two popular “common sense” explanations for the use of the “X” in Xmas. The first is akin to any common abbreviation, like “BFF” or “LOL”. In other words, it’s just a faster, less character-intensive way of saying the same thing.

The other popular belief is that the “X” was substituted by those who are trying to remove the word “Christ” from the holiday. Thus, writing Xmas is a way to secularize the holiday, to remove its religious connotations, perhaps even to make it more accessible to those who don’t identify themselves as Christian or religious.

Therefore, I was interested to learn that “Xmas” is not a modern word. It has been around for a long time, and originated because “X” is the Greek letter “Chi,” which is a common abbreviation for “Kristos,” or “Christ.” As a result, Xmas did not arise due to the texting generation, nor did it arise as an effort to erase “Christ” from the name.

The word “Christ” means Messiah, or “Anointed One.” Now, many Jews believe there actually was a man named Jesus back in the day, but that he was not the Messiah. That means Jews who are careful about their language refer to him only as “Jesus” or “Jesus of Nazareth” but not as “Jesus Christ,” since doing so would call him by an honorific to which we believe he is not entitled. If we really wanted to take the “Christ” out of “Christmas,” we ought to call it something like “Jesusmas” instead.

At any rate, many people argue that using the word “Xmas” is not at all disrespectful, because it doesn’t imply laziness on the part of the writer, nor does it in any way eliminate “Christ” from the word. I believe these people are missing the point.

One could argue that disrespect may be in the eye of the beholder. Thus, because so many people seem to mistakenly believe that “Xmas” removes “Christ” from “Christmas,” one could argue that the word “Xmas” should be avoided in order not to offend these people. Sometimes ignorance is not bliss.

Even if you don’t believe people should make concessions to the ignorant, the intent of the writer is being ignored in this discussion, and I believe it should not be. For instance, at least one writer says she felt “more comfortable” after hearing that writing “Xmas” was a way for Jews to remove “Christ” from the holiday.

Now, if that isn’t disrespectful, I don’t know what is. What gives her, or anyone, the right to try to remove the religious figure from another religion’s holiday? Plus, she says it’s the Jews who are responsible for it. What a way to give Jews a bad name for something that has nothing to do with us!

One of the things I love about Judaism is we don’t believe anyone has to convert to Judaism to be a good person or to earn a place in the world-to-come (what the Christians would call heaven). As long as a person follows the covenant God made with Noah (a subset of the rules Christians refer to as the “Ten Commandments”), they’re all set. As a result, there is no need for Jews to try to convert Christians, or to try to negate their religion or their holiday.

So I conclude, if you’re certain you won’t be misunderstood, and you acknowledge that the “X” is the same as “Christ” or “Kristos,” then go ahead and use “Xmas.” Otherwise, show a little respect, and spend the few extra keystrokes to say “Christmas.”

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Havail Havalim #297

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack.

Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me. For instance, I am absolutely against violence directed at unarmed people who are simply going about their lives and not being agressive in any way. I'm not happy that needs to be said, but there it is.

Batya presents a drash at שמות Sh'mot Names, Yes, It's all in a Name posted at Shiloh Musings.

What do Facebook and the book of Sh'mot (Exodus) have in common (or not)? Find out where presents Mark Zuckerberg - Facebook Revisited posted at Views on the News.

Frozenchallah has a cautionary tale for parents looking for a teacher in 14 | December | 2010 | Frozenchallah's Blog posted at Frozenchallah's Blog.

Lady-Light presents "Chanukah Redux" posted at Tikkun Olam.

I talk about my evolving relationship with my new tefillin at My Tefillin Are My Friends - How Did That Happen? posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

Sunny writes about Kaballah in Kabbalah - Sephirot and Mysticism posted at Metaphysical light rays meditation.

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver presents Chassidus Chabad: Not just for intellectuals posted at A Chassidishe farbrengen.

Chavi's Conversion Corner:
Chavi sent in so many posts about converting to Judaism that I'm making a special section just for her. All the posts in this section can be found at You're Not Crazy.

Read about the Orthodox dating process at The Orthodox Dating Process.

Get some answers to the question "Why convert?" at Why on Earth Would Someone Convert to Judaism?.

The Importance of Finding the "Right" Community presents some thoughts about finding the right community in which to live.

Learn about one of the newest requirements for Orthodox converts at Convert Issues: The Community Requirement.

Last but not least, a rose by any other name still would not be Jewish: Adventures in Semantics: Goy v. Non-Jew.

Should Israeli rabbis be immunized? No, what Mordechai Torczyner writes is not about getting flu shots. Read more at Immunizing the Rabbis? posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Join Harry on a stroll through downtown Jerusalem in A walk on the wild side posted at ISRAELITY.

Yes, there is American football in Israel, says Batya in American Tackle Football, Very Israeli posted at me-ander.

View some great pictures as Harry brings us Foto Friday – Local Testimony 2010 posted at ISRAELITY.

Lady-Light talks about US airport security in comparison to Israel's in Here's a Good Idea for Airport Security posted at Tikkun Olam.

Joel Katz presents Religion and State in Israel - December 20, 2010 (Section 2) posted at Religion and State in Israel.

Yisraek Medad reprints a speech from 1922 in On The Arabs in Palestine posted at My Right Word.

Yisrael Medad presents The Medad Principle Justified posted at My Right Word.

Ariel Ben-Yochanan gives us a few words about the conversion bill in This IDF conversion bill is absurd posted at The Torah Revolution: Everything that Hashem has spoken we shall do (Ex. 19:8).

Cosmic X doesn't think Jews and Arabs should mix, in Voices Against Assimilation posted at Cosmic X in Jerusalem.

Ben-Yehudah has no sympathy for the hikers attacked in Israel, he says, in Christians Attacked On A Hike In Israel and he supports Jewish Israeli youths who attacked Arabs for no apparent reason in Teens Suspected Of Attacking Arabs posted at Esser Agaroth.

Daniel Ben Shmuel also doesn't seem to have sympathy for the hikers in Reflections On A Dead Missionary (audio) posted at THE JEWISH FIST: A Call to Resurrect the Jewish Scholar-Warrior of Old..

Ben-Yehudah argues against the RCA protest of the ruling for Israeli Jews not to sell or rent to non-Jews in Esser Agaroth On The RCA posted at Esser Agaroth.

Batya presents Good News, Bad News, Good-Anti-Israel Bus Ads Rejected, Bad-They Were Proposed posted at Shiloh Musings.

Galit Breen presents a heartwarming story about the right way to respond to bullying, Minnesota Mamaleh: For the Love of Star Wars | TC Jewfolk posted at TC Jewfolk.

Mulling over whether to have another baby? Ima2seven is thinking about it too in Another Baby? posted at Ima 2 Seven.

Chaviva writes about her less-than-stellar mikvah experiences in The Mikvah is Lost on Me posted at Just Call Me Chaviva.

In response, here is an inspirational piece by Melissa about her mikvah experiences: Reclaiming Mikvah posted at Redefining Rebbetzin.

Let's all wish Batya a fruit-filled year as we read TU B'Shvat is Coming, Yum, But... posted at me-ander.

For her perspective of the role of Jewish women, read self-proclaimed sexist Rachel Moore's Ima 2 Seven: Old friend, warm soup, healthy debate posted at Ima 2 Seven.

Mirj writes a sweet tribute to her father for his yahrzeit at Daddy?s Girl posted at Miriyummy.

Eli presents a story about the problem of child sexual abuse in Shame and Blame posted at

Sheva presents Love Letters and Air Guitar posted at My Shtub.

Elle shares some bittersweet thoughts about conversion in who I am posted at On Becoming Devoted.

I had high hopes for this weekend, as described in Is the US About to Get a Taste of Jerusalem? posted at To Kiss A Mezuzah.

Super mommy Galit Breen answers the question, Minnesota Mamaleh: So What DO Jews Do On Christmas? posted at TC Jewfolk.

Mordechai Torczyner reminds us of the need to be senstive regarding childless people in Childlessness in the Jewish Community – posted at The Rebbetzin's Husband.

Batya writes about a play in It Should Be Required Viewing! posted at Shiloh Musings.

You can see and read a tribute to the "Mendy Report" from Thejewishteen in Mendy Pellin IS Shnazzle posted at The Jewish Teen.

Cosmic X quotes a former Attorney General regarding Israel's request to release Pollard in Former Attorney General Mukasey: Pardon Pollard posted at Cosmic X in Jerusalem.

Amy Greenbaum marks the end of discrimination against gays in the US military in On the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell posted at Amelah's Blog (Thoughts from a Rabbi).

Harry tells us about a "destination" wedding in Israel in Ben gets married in Israel posted at ISRAELITY.

Yisraek Medad presents My Comment Has Been Removed from the New York Times' The Lede posted at My Right Word.

Cosmic X finds the birth of a new baby to be sad because the child's mother is Jewish but his father isn't, in Einat Wilf: The Plague of Intermarriage Hits the Knesset posted at Cosmic X in Jerusalem.

Lady-Light presents a video of a Christian from Lebanon talking about discrimination by Muslims in Where is the Church's Outcry Against This? posted at Tikkun Olam.

For new-school blogs on an old-school subject, read Jennifer Lynch's 20 Soulful Blogs for Vinyl Fans and Collectors posted at Top Online Colleges.

Mottel shares a recipe in Mottel Pizza posted at Letters of Thought.

How you can participate:
You may submit your blog post for the next edition of Haveil Havalim by using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Is the US About to Get a Taste of Jerusalem?

By Susan Esther Barnes

Thanks to the commenters at TCJewfolk, I was clued in to a nifty concept: Is the United States about to get a taste of what it’s like to live in Jerusalem this weekend?

One of the most lasting impressions of the City of Jerusalem on Shabbat is how the city transforms itself. Many people work Sunday through Thursday, so they are off on Friday and are free to do their last-minute shopping and cooking for Friday night’s festive meal.

Starting in the afternoon, businesses begin to close. As more and more shoppers and workers arrive at home, there are fewer and fewer cars on the road. By late afternoon, the normally bustling streets become empty thoroughfares, with only an occasional vehicle passing by.

As the city slows down, everything is more quiet. It’s easier to relax, to notice the plants and the flowers. A neighborly feeling emerges as couples and groups of people stroll toward their local synagogue for evening services.

On Saturday, many of the shops and restaurants are still closed. Younger kids play in local parks, older children visit with their families, parents relax.

Finally, on Saturday night, the sun sets, the cars and people emerge, and the city becomes a bustling place once again.

This year, Christmas Eve falls on Erev Shabbat, and Christmas Day falls on the day of Shabbat. This year, many Jews and non-Jews will have Friday off to prepare for the festive meal on Friday night. Others will leave work on Friday afternoon, and many stores and businesses will close early.

This year, many of those stores and restaurants will also be closed on Shabbat, for Christmas. Christians and secular Americans will be at home, unwrapping presents and enjoying time with their families. There will be few cars on the road. It will be easier to hear the birds and the wind in the trees.

Perhaps, after lunch with their families, a neighborly feeling will emerge as Jewish and non-Jewish families meet in local parks, and take a break from their normally bustling lives.

I miss Israel, and most especially I miss Jerusalem. I hope that this year, maybe a taste of Jerusalem will visit us here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

My Tefillin Are My Friends - How Did That Happen?

By Susan Esther Barnes

The last time I wrote about my tefillin, they had just arrived, and I was filled with mixed feelings about them. I wanted to make an appointment with my rabbi so he could help me feel better about them, but he was out of town for ten days. I was on my own until he got back.

I did some research on the internet and printed out a couple of different sets of instructions regarding how to put them on. This experience reminded me of the old joke which says, if you put two Jews in a room and ask them a question, you’ll get at least three answers.

There are many different opinions about how to wrap tefillin. If you’re Ashkenazi you wrap the strap around your arm in one direction, and if you’re Shephardic you wrap it in the other direction. Some instructions say to wrap it so the straps form the Hebrew letter “shin” on the back of your hand, and others don’t. There are various ways to wrap the strap around your fingers.

As if that weren’t enough, there are disagreements about how many prayers to say while putting them on, whether or not women should say the prayers, and when exactly to say them.

All this is actually one of the things I love about Judaism. There are many different customs, and as long as we don’t get caught up in the belief that there must be One Right Way and all other ways are Wrong, the discussion about why a person may prefer one way over the others can be quite interesting.

Because of the differences in the direction of the wrapping, as well as the order of the prayers inside the tefillin boxes, I had already made one decision by honoring my father and ordering a Sephardic set. The rest of the wrapping style to choose was wide open, though.

I experimented with the different ways to wrap the strap, and found that I very much liked making the letter shin on my hand. I did, however, have an enormous amount of extra strap left over to either tuck in or to hold scrunched up in my hand. I wondered whether the strap was made for a large-armed man and whether there is anything in halacha (Jewish law) that would prevent me from cutting off the excess amount.

I didn’t know how to tighten the strap on my head, due to the complicated knot in the back. The first time I tried it on, I read the entire morning service with the head box constantly slipping down from my forehead onto my nose. The box on my upper arm was a little loose, too. These issues made it pretty difficult to feel the tefillin were aiding my prayer experience in any way.

The next time I went to put on the arm box, I realized there was a plastic box protecting the actual tefillin box, and clearly I was supposed to take off the plastic box before I put on the tefillin. How I noticed and removed the plastic box from on the head box the first time and not the arm one, I don’t know. It was still a little loose and I still had a lot of extra strap, but it was better. I also figured out how to tighten the head box somewhat, so that was better, too.

And then a funny thing happened. The rabbi got back from his trip and I set up my appointment through his assistant. I emailed the rabbi to say I had a set of tefillin and the appointment was for a lesson on how to wear them correctly. He responded with, “Where did you get them? Are they awesome?” and suddenly, I discovered that all of my baggage about tefillin had somehow disappeared. Instead of making me feel like they were invaders of some kind like they had before, they had somehow become my friends. Awkward friends, but friends nonetheless. So I responded, “Yes, they are awesome.”

Unsurprisingly, the rabbi was an enormous help in showing me how to tighten the head strap so it fit even better than I had already managed. He also helped me to discover how to wrap the arm strap so the box isn’t loose and so I don’t have so much extra left over to tuck in at my hand.

The next challenge is that I’m not very fond of praying by myself, and I’m not a morning person, so the thought of getting up early in the morning to pray with my tefillin by myself is not very motivating. It would be much easier to get out of bed early if there were other people to pray with.

So, with the rabbi’s blessing, I’m going to see if I can get together enough people to come to a lay-led weekday morning service at the synagogue on some kind of regular schedule, to give myself, and others, a chance to lay tefillin and pray. I know of two other people who are interested in doing this. Only seven more, and we have a minyan. Wish me luck!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Orthodox Jews in Space – The Real Questions

By Susan Esther Barnes

Recently I wrote a critique of a novella that purported to be about Orthodox Jews who go into space in an attempt to find and populate another planet. Unfortunately, the novella appeared to have been written and edited by people who know very little about Jews in general, let alone the Orthodox.

Since that time, I have continued to wonder, if Orthodox Jews actually went on a long journey in outer space, what kinds of issues would they need to address?

One thing I mentioned in my other post is the issue of whether there would be any maintenance or other work that would be required on Shabbat, since normally no work is allowed on Shabbat. As one person pointed out to me, perhaps the concept of pikuach nefesh would apply. The Talmud says that certain laws, including those concerning Shabbat, may be broken in order to save a life. Therefore, one might think that if neglecting to do certain work on Shabbat would result in the death of one of more people on the space ship, that work would be permitted.

However, it is my understanding that pikuach nefesh only applies when the specific individual who would die has been identified. For example, if you see a person drowning on Shabbat, it is permissible to do things to save that person that would otherwise be forbidden, such as using a motor boat to reach them, using a phone to call for help, etc.

In a space ship, if, for example, an air filter breaks down on Shabbat and some people might die if weren’t replaced before the conclusion of Shabbat, but it is unknown which people might die from it, there might be some question regarding whether this work is permitted (no specific individual whose life is at risk has been identified).

On the other hand, if it is a person’s profession to save lives (such as a doctor or fire fighter), that person is allowed to work on Shabbat. So perhaps it would be determined that anyone who maintains or repairs life support systems would fall into this category.

Clearly, this is one of the kinds of issues the Orthodox Jewish inhabitants of a space ship would be wise to anticipate and come to an agreement on before embarking on their trip.

Another Shabbat issue, which appears to be more easily solved, revolves around the prohibition against carrying things outside one’s home or community on Shabbat. In some areas where a lot of Orthodox Jews live, they use an eruv, or enclosure, around their community. This allows, for example, a person to carry a house key with them to synagogue. I would think it would be easy to declare the space ship’s hull as an eruv, thereby allowing all of the space ship’s inhabitants to carry items throughout the ship on Shabbat.

Whether they would actually want to do so, however, is an interesting question. If they can carry anything anywhere on the ship at any time, then when their descendants finally reach their destination, those descendants will have never experienced the prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, and may even have forgotten all about it. It seems highly possible that they, then, would be at risk of carrying things on Shabbat on their destination planet. Therefore, I can see this, too, as being an interesting topic of discussion before the ship leaves.

One issue this all leads up to is the question of sacred time. For Jews, one day of each week, namely Shabbat, is separate in time and holiness from the other six days of the week. Shabbat starts at sundown on Friday and continues until three stars are visible in the sky on Saturday night. In a space ship, there is no sundown, nor an appearance of the first three stars, to mark the beginning and the end of Shabbat.

In addition, certain other holy days (or holidays) are set aside in time as well. These days are fixed according to a lunar/solar calendar, meaning they are set based on the phase of the moon, with adjustments made in order to ensure that they don’t drift from one season to another. For instance, Pesach is always observed in the spring, and Yom Kippur is always observed in the fall. With no lunar or seasonal cycles, how should these days be set in the space ship’s calendar?

One possible option that might be considered would be to tie the ship’s calendar to the earth’s calendar. The ship’s clocks and calendar could be synchronized to a specific place on earth, such as the country where most of the ship’s original passengers came from, or with Jerusalem, for instance.

However, that would be harder to do than it sounds. Anyone who reads a fair amount of science fiction likely is familiar with the concept of how time changes with speed. Many stories have been written about people who make a journey that appears to be only a short amount of time to them, but when they return home they find many more years have passed at home.

Therefore, if a space ship tried to synchronize its time with a spot on Earth, as the ship moved faster and faster, the ship’s days and hours would get shorter and shorter. I don’t imagine a ship full of Jews being content with observing a two-hour-long Shabbat every 14 hours. That really isn’t enough time to get in all the traditional prayers, let alone to have enough time in between Shabbats to appreciate the break from work.

Even if the space farers came up with a satisfactory way to establish the correct time to observe Shabbat and the other holidays when en route, once they reached their destination planet, they would have to examine all these questions of time and calendar once again.

The length of the days, the years, and the seasons on the new planet, and whether or not it has more than one sun or more than one moon, will present a new host of questions to be answered by everyone concerned with establishing the correct placement of Shabbat and the holidays in time.

These are all questions that I think could be incorporated into a very interesting story about what might actually happen if Orthodox (or other observant) Jews endeavored to take a long journey in space to find and populate other planets.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Attack of the Latke Lovers

By Susan Esther Barnes

It was the seventh night of Chanukah. The meeting of our Chevra Kadisha (group of people who visit the sick, ritually wash and prepare people for burial, etc.) had barely begun when the rabbi asked, "Who here hasn't had a latke yet this year?" I raised my hand. Nobody else did.

There was a round of gasps. "You haven't had a latke? Seriously?"

"No," I answered, "I never have latkes."

"Susan Barnes," he said, "You must have a latke before Chanukah is over. You think what we are doing here is a mitzvah, but having a latke is a more important one."

"What," I retorted, "I'm going to Hell because I haven't eaten a latke?" (Yes, the rabbi and I actually talk to each other like this).

"Tomorrow night," he asked, "you're getting home early enough that you can make latkes?"

"No," I explained, "tomorrow night I'm volunteering here at the homeless shelter."

He looked distressed.

By this point, the conversation had gone on longer than I wanted. I was blushing. "What's the big deal?" I thought, "Eating a latke isn't actually a mitzvah, a commandment from God. Maybe eating latkes is the tradition of the rest of the Chevra Kadisha, but it isn't mine."

The word "latke" is Yiddish, not Hebrew. When I was growing up, nobody in my family spoke Yiddish. My father and his parents were from Hungary, not Poland or Russia. Apparently, my ancestors spent some time in France and Germany after they were thrown out of Spain in 1492 and before they settled in Hungary, but my father insists we're still Sephardic.

Nonetheless, latkes are associated with Chanukah because they are fried in oil, and Chanukah is about the miracle of the light that lasted for eight days even though there was only one day's worth of oil.

One would think it would be sufficient for me to say, "It may be your tradition to eat latkes on Chanukah, but it isn't mine," and that would be the end of it, but it wasn't.

Ironically, at one point, after the discussion had finally been deflected off of my latke deficiency and had made its way to visiting the sick, one of the women described some advice she had gotten when she was volunteering at a hotline to prevent child abuse.

She was told, "When you're talking with someone, picture that you're riding in a car with them. The person you are talking to is the driver, and you are the passenger. They are driving their own life. You can point out the view to them; you can even suggest they might want to take a different route, but you never try to grab the wheel."

Clearly, at least some of the others in the room had a lot of energy about the fact that I hadn't eaten a latke. The message I got from them was, "You are not okay because you have not eaten a latke. There is something wrong with you. The only way to fix it is for you to eat a latke, and then you will be okay again."

I felt as if suddenly a whole room full of people had tried to grab the wheel from me all at the same time, and I had to try to wrestle it back. I realized how fortunate I am that I am in a place in my life where I know I'm okay. There is nothing essentially wrong with me. I could not eat a single latke for the entire rest of my life, and I would still be okay.

Still, after the meeting, one woman said to me, "You must be allergic to something in latkes."

"No," I said, "If I were allergic, I would have said so."

On the way to the parking lot, another woman offered hopefully, "I'll be making latkes on Sunday. You're welcome to come over and have some."

After I declined her invitation, another person said, "I'll be making latkes on Thursday. I can bring one to synagogue for you on Friday night."

"What?" I said, "You think I want a cold, congealed latke?"

"I'll heat it up for you," she said.

"No thank you," I insisted, "I don't need a latke."

As I said to these folks in the parking lot, I'm not anti-latke. If I were at someone's home and they were serving latkes, I would have one. But I don't need a latke to feel like I have properly observed Chanukah.

What is it that makes us go beyond simple hospitality and causes us to go to such great lengths to try to foist our traditions onto people who clearly do not feel compelled to partake in them? And how can we make it stop?