Thanksgivukkah Prayer 2013 for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah

The buzz surrounding the anomaly on the Jewish calendar this year when the first day of Hanukkah coincides with Thanksgiving is an oddity. As I told Sue Selasky of the Detroit Free Press when she interviewed me about Thanksgivukkah, I explained that the hype surrounding this day is palpable. It is truly a statistical oddity as it won’t coincide again until 75,000 years from now, according to Santa Fe, New Mexico physicist Jonathan Mizrahi’s calculations.

The last time the first full day of Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving was in 1888, just weeks after the presidential election that pitted Grover Cleveland of New York, the incumbent president and a Democrat, against the Republican nominee Benjamin Harrison. As I explained to Sue during her research for the article in the Free Press, since Hanukkah is an eight day celebration, there have been years since when some nights have overlapped with Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving and Hanukkah won’t coincide again until 2070 and then again in 2165 when the first night of Hanukkah will fall on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgivukkah Sweet Potato Latke at Southern Nosh Vegetarian Soul (gluten free), which is a restaurant in Metro Detroit that is certified kosher by Kosher Michigan. More information and the recipe is on the Kosher Michigan website

Paul Raushenbush, the editor of Huffington Post Religion and an ordained American Baptist minister who happens to be the great-grandson of Louis Brandeis, asked me to write a prayer for Thanksgivukkah. The following is what I wrote for Huffington Post Religion:

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Sukkot Themed KidLit by Dori Weinstein

One of the greatest gifts in the Jewish community in the 21st century has undoubtedly been the addition of the PJ Library. Started by Harold Grinspoon’s philanthropic foundation, the PJ Library now sends over 100,000 free books to Jewish families each month through the generosity of local Jewish philanthropists. As I wrote about last June on this blog, the PJ Library’s 3 millionth book was given to the daughter of a good friend of mine in Livingston, New Jersey.My three children have amassed an entire bookshelf worth of complimentary PJ Library books over the years. These books have covered all of the Jewish holidays, Shabbat, Israel, Jewish history and Jewish ethics. My family is grateful for the wonderful gift of literature that has made the PJ Library such a meaningful endeavor. But as great as the PJ Library is, the books are really more suitable for children up to a certain age. After a child reaches age 9 or 10 there are few offerings for the pre-teen crowd (although the PJ Library is beginning to add these more advanced books to its monthly offerings).

As my oldest child approaches double-digits in age, I’ve begun to collect more advanced books with Jewish themes. One such book that my son has already enjoyed is Dori Weinstein’s “Shaking in the Shack.” This book is the second in the author’s YoYo and YaYa series and is published by the author’s own Five Flames Press in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Dori, a Jewish educator, began writing these books — she’s currently at work on number three in the series — because she too was looking for modern Jewish books for her own children as well as for the students she was teaching. While there is no shortage of these Jewish themed books for younger children, especially the pre-school cohort, the options become very sparse for middle school age children who were used to more challenging books like the Harry Potter series.

Dori’s first stab at a pre-teen novel based on a Jewish holiday came out in 2011 when “Sliding into the New Year” was published by Yotzeret Publishing. That book was named a 2012 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards gold medal winner in the category of Young Adult Fiction-Religion/Spirituality. Dori’s goal is to write 12 books in which we watch boy-girl twins Joel Silver (YoYo) and Ellie Silver (YaYa) grow up during a year of their lives. As my own twins — also a son and a daughter — get older I’m sure they’ll appreciate and be able to relate to YoYo and YaYa (both nicknamed after their Hebrew names Yoel and Yael respectively).

Dori’s recent book is perfect for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot that begins tomorrow night. “Shaking in the Shack” takes place during the Sukkot festival and focuses on the Jewish value of helping those less fortunate. YoYo loves to be a comedian and to play practical jokes, but when he, YaYa and the rest of their fifth-grade Hebrew school class find a mysterious four-legged visitor in the synagogue’s sukkah they all take it seriously. Their unexpected adventure brings the twin brother and sister duo face-to-face with the importance of shelter and caring for those in need during Sukkot and year round.

The book hits on the core themes of Sukkot like hachnasat orchim, being hospitable and inviting guests into the sukkah. It also has a subtle way of teaching all of the ingredients of the fall holiday including about the lulav (palm branch) and etrog (citron), as well as the ritual of ushpizin, the mythical guests of the sukkah.

Dori has decided to switch between the two protagonists as narrators in each successive book so that “Shaking in the Shack” is narrated by Joel (YoYo). In the book, he really comes across as the typical 5th grade boy who shows both a silly side as well as a maturing serious side with all of the awkwardness most pre-pubescent boys exhibit.

When I recently met Dori during her summer swing through Detroit on a family-vacation-slash-book-tour, she couldn’t contain her excitement over the new book. Every time another Judaica store or synagogue gift shop agreed to sell her KidLit series, she enthused on Facebook how YoYo and YaYa will now be available in another Jewish community. The YoYo and YaYa series is ideal for 8-12 year-olds, but even the bar and bat mitzvah age teens will enjoy them.

Happy Sukkot and Happy Reading Kids!

Yom Kippur 2013 – 5 Things You Should Know

Here is my “5 Things You Should Know About Yom Kippur” article, originally published in the AOL/HuffingtonPost Patch.com in 2011:

Here are five things you should know about Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement holiday that begins on Friday evening and concludes 25 hours later on Saturday night.

Calendar
Yom Kippur is the most solemn and holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is also known as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” because of its magnitude. In fact, it is such an important holiday that it can even occur on the Jewish Sabbath (as it does this year), making it the only time that fasting is allowed on the Sabbath. This Day of Atonement occurs on the tenth day of the first month of the Jewish calendar, rounding out the Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah. Due to its popularity, you’ll notice local synagogue parking lots at full capacity on Yom Kippur, although many observant members of the Jewish faith do not drive on this day and therefore walk to and from the synagogue instead. Several school districts do not hold classes on Yom Kippur, but this year’s occurrence on a Saturday does not make that necessary.

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Rosh Hashanah 2013 – 5 Things You Should Know

Here is my “5 Things You Should Know About Rosh Hashanah” article, originally published in the AOL/HuffingtonPost Patch.com in 2011:

The Jewish New Year celebration, Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew, meaning “the head of the year”) begins this week on Wednesday evening and lasts until Friday. Here are five things that everyone should know about the holiday.

Rabbi Jason Miller blows the shofar (ram’s horn) which is used on Rosh Hashanah

Popularity
On the Jewish calendar, this holiday is one of the big ones. Even members of the Jewish faith who aren’t regular synagogue attendees make a point of attending services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which occurs 10 days later. You’ll notice local synagogue parking lots are overflowing on these days. For some, Rosh Hashanah services are an opportunity for spiritual renewal and introspection. For others, this is a time to visit with friends and enjoy time with family

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Passover Message 2013

Passover 2013 - Rabbi Jason Miller

As we celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover this year, we will ask several questions. One question I encourage all of us to ask — no matter our religion, age or current location on this earth — is how we plan to make this year different from past years?

The tradition of the Passover seder is to recite the same story of our ancestors in the desert that has been told throughout the generations, but each generation must tell the story differently. Indeed, each year we must tell the story a little differently to make it relevant to our lives and to our children’s lives. I pray that we each have the opportunity to claim that which enslaves us and to find the courage within ourselves to fight for our freedom and be a part of the positive change so desperately needed in our world.

Wishing everyone a very happy and healthy Passover.

Rabbi Jason Miller

Haggadah Feeling – Some Fresh Haggadot for Passover

I began collecting different versions of the haggadah, the Passover seder’s playbook-script-manual, when I was in college. It all started by ordering a new one each year in anticipation of the holiday and somehow my collection now exceeds 100 and has demanded its own bookcase. This pales in comparison with the vast haggadah collection of Irwin Alterman of blessed memory, a brilliant community leader in Detroit who passed away earlier this month and had an exquisite library of some 1,500 haggadahs. His son, a childhood friend, tells me that plans are underway to allow the public to admire his collection soon.

For many Jewish families the version of the haggadah is as much a family tradition as the food served during the seder meal. Just ask many Jewish Americans and they’ll tell you about their deep connection to the Maxwell House Haggadah from childhood seders.

The 21st century, however, has seen a seismic shift from the rather bland (and free) Maxwell House Haggadah to more creative versions. And that transition has also afforded many Jewish families some poetic liberties with the seder script. The more traditional families have always tended toward the keva (Hebrew for rote or routine), while more progressive families allowed for more kavvanah (that unscripted spontaneity)  while telling the Passover story. Truthfully, the seder was always intended to be a symposium or talk-feast with an ample mix of both keva and kavvanah. A famous rabbi quoted in the haggadah believes one must only mention the paschal lamb, matzah and bitter herb to fulfill the obligation of the seder. The rest as they say is commentary.

So when a family is ready to make the move to a new haggadah, what should they look for? It’s important to remember that adopting a new hagaddah can be a costly investment at first. While the Maxwell House Haggadah came compliments of the coffee corporation, today’s options can cost around $20 each which adds up when all twenty-five guests require a copy. The haggadah will be reused year after year (with an increasing amount of wine stains and matzah crumbs) and that’s why it’s important to choose the right one at first.

My two favorites in my collection are the (Arthur) Szyk Haggadah and the (David) Moss Haggadah, but these works of art are more suited to be displayed on the coffee table than used at the seder table. So I’m going to recommend a few options that your family might consider adopting for annual use at the seder.

WELLSPRINGS OF FREEDOM: THE RENEW OUR DAYS HAGGADAH
(wellspringshaggadah.com)
This haggadah was edited and published by Rabbi Ron Aigen, a Reconstructionist rabbi in Montreal who has also edited a siddur and a machzor (high holiday prayerbook). This haggadah draws on several modern scholars to provide the commentary of the familiar tale of freedom from slavery. It contains more of the biblical narrative than other haggadahs and uses a “split screen” format meaning the page is divided between the spoken story-line of the seder and the personal, inner journey found in the commentaries. This haggadah, with colorful artwork every dozen or so pages, encourages the leader to be creative and engaging.

JONATHAN SACKS HAGGADA
(www.korenpub.com)
Maggid, a division of Koren Publishers in Jerusalem, offers a haggadah with two texts in one. The traditional text is joined by a collection of thought-provoking essays by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. The newly revised edition, recently released, includes a new translation and layout. The essays are scholarly, yet eloquent. Sacks addresses the relationship between Passover, Jewish identity, and Jewish history, as well as the role of Passover in Western political imagination and offers new interpretations of the traditional haggadah text.

MY HAGGADAH: MADE IT MYSELF
(madeitmyselfbooks.com)
The Passover seder is unique in that it is a serious discussion around the dinner table that is meant to include both adults and children. But that can also post challenges when the children are very young. Francine Hermelin Levite created her own very kid-friendly haggadah several years ago to keep the little ones enthused. Now, with help from Reboot.com she has made it available for purchase. Packed with nearly 40 pages of engaging, open-ended questions and drawing prompts to do before, during, or after the seder, this haggadah creates lively Passover conversations around the table. Children are able to personalize the traditional story through their own pictures and art (it comes with stickers). The simple, creative haggadah is built around the 15 steps of the seder and, while it is an out-of-the-box publication, it still includes the basic blessings, songs and stories. The essence of the seder is to ask questions and drum up discussion. Hermelin Levite’s haggadah helps that process along (and with little kids there isn’t much time to waste before the eating begins).

BRONFMAN HAGGADAH
(bronfmanhaggadah.com)
The well-known Jewish philanthropist and international communal leader Edgar M. Bronfman has joined with his wife, artist Jan Aronson, to produce a radical reimagining of the Passover text. The inspirational readings that Bronfman included span from Frederick Douglas to Ralph Waldo Emerson and poet Marge Piercy. The underlying message of the Bronfman Haggadah is that we all possess the capacity for peace and understanding. The watercolor paintings are stunning and are sure to evoke discussion. It’s evident that Bronfman spent a great deal of time putting his version of the haggadah together and it’s sure to become a popular fixture on seder tables this Passover. It’s been described as an “engaging and interactive contemporary account of Passover, which will foster meaningful and constructive dialogue between Jews and non-Jews alike.”

HAGGADOT.COM
If you don’t like anything you see in already published haggadahs, there’s a website that allows you to become the creator and publish your own. As the introduction on haggadot.com states, “Passover is about freedom. But when it comes to the seder, many of us are lost. This website is a resource for Jews of all backgrounds to make the Haggadah that finally feels meaningful for a contemporary seder, with unique perspectives gathered from individuals worldwide.” With an array of classical texts and contemporary interpretations, this website allows the user to create a more personalized version with original writings and artwork. The creators invite users to mix and match content from other users as well as previously published haggadot so that one family’s haggadah may include selections from a 16th century haggadah interspersed with feminist and social justice readings or poetry. The final step is a PDF copy that can be reproduced for seder guests. Wine stains? Just print a new copy. Of course, as the children get older an amended, more comprehensive version can be created and used.

There’s no shortage of haggadahs on the market. Each denomination of modern Judaism has published its own version. And as more haggadahs are available each year more families are reconsidering how they present their seder, the most practiced Jewish ritual today. It’s encouraging to see this change in culture from a rote Maxwell House seder to an embrace of creativity and creating the opportunity for multi-generational dialogue. After all, that’s the whole point of the Passover seder.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Fun Passover Activities for the Seder and Beyond

Passover, which begins on March 25, is one of the most widely observed Jewish holidays. Each year during the Passover seder, Jewish people attempt to integrate the old traditions of the holiday with innovations. Mostly, these innovations are meant to keep the children (and many of the adults too!) alert and engaged during the seder.

Innovations in the Haggadah are certainly valuable for keeping things fresh at the seder while still sticking to the centuries-old script. However, for young children it can be a frustrating and kvetchy experience as they watch each adult at the table take a turn reading the midrashic commentary of our ancestors’ exodus from Egyptian slavery — no matter how lovely the artwork is in the newly published Haggadah.

Rabbi Vicki Tuckman, on the ReformJudaism.org website, writes that the “most important thing in leading a Passover seder is feeling that you have the freedom (pun intended) to be as creative as possible.” These days many families — especially those with young children — are scrapping the traditional seder symposium and opting for fun activities that keep everyone participating. Some families I spoke with pitch tents in their living room and tell the Passover story while pretending to be the Israelites camped out in the desert.

In the weeks leading up to Passover, which arrives quite early this year, I had the opportunity to review a few games and activities that I plan to use to keep my kids having fun at the seder this year. Some of them I’ve been using for years and others I’ve only discovered this year.


PASSOVER BINGOTamara Pester, a Denver lawyer, sent me this game back in January and my kids started playing it right away. They enjoy playing Bingo and I was thrilled to see them using Bingo cards with some educational value rather than a bunch of numbers. Pester came up with the idea for Passover Bingo when she saw her niece and nephew getting restless during the family seder. “Instead of drudging through the Hagaddah, wondering when it’s time to eat,” she explains, “people will be motivated to follow along with the story of Exodus. Guests at your traditional Seder will be participating and paying rapt attention to the pages, thanks to this easy-to-play game.”

The game retails for $24.99 and features six colorful game boards with Passover keywords such as Egypt and Elijah. The game also includes 96 foam markers, and is recommended for children ages three and up. To help fund the project, Pester turned to Jewcer.com, which offers crowd-sourced funding for Jewish projects. “Actually, the Jewcer people contacted me because they’d never done a promotion with a product before,” she said. The Jewcer site waived fees and helped Pester raise nearly $3,000 for the game. Pester’s sold over 150 of the games through Jewcer, the Passover Bingo website, and several synagogue gift stores.

PLAGUES BAGS
I first discovered the Plagues Bags back in the late 1990s when I saw an ad for them in Moment Magazine. I ordered one and began to use it at my family’s seder which I started leading after my grandfather passed away in 1994. It became a custom at our seder for my young cousins Jeff and Ben to put on the hand puppets of Moses and Pharaoh respectively and act out the dialogue between the two. The two cousins are now in their mid-20s and, while their hands no longer fit in the plastic puppets, they’re good sports and still play along.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein thought so highly of the Plagues Bags that he decided his synagogue would take over the sale of them each year. In 2001 my wife and I moved to Caldwell, New Jersey where I served an internship at Congregation Agudath Israel with Rabbi Silverstein. He put my wife in charge of the Plagues Bags and that year she reported to me that they had sold several thousand in the week before Passover.

What’s so great about the Plagues Bags? They encourage the seder participants to have fun during what could otherwise be a very tense time during the seder. The horrible plagues God brought upon the Egyptians, including the death of the firstborn children, can be difficult to explain to children. It’s also getting close to the festive meal and everyone is hungry at this point in the seder. The “toys” inside the Plagues Bags help the seder leader keep everyone’s attention and bring some levity to the “talk-feast”.

JEWISH HOLIDAYS IN A BOX
At JewishHolidaysInABox.com, they’ve completed a new guide called “Celebrate Passover: How to Plan a Fun, Simple Seder”. This creative guide helps families who are novices when it comes to the Pesach seder or want to make their standard seder more engaging and fun. Their The 3-part downloadable package comes with a 36-page PDF + 2 audio tutorials and is available on the Jewish Holidays in a Box website.

RESOURCES FOR INNOVATIVE AND FUN SEDERS
Two books I recommend to help seder leaders enliven the seder each year are David Arnow’s “Creating Lively Passover Seders” and Ron Wolfson’s “The Passover Seder: The Art of Jewish Living”. Danielle Dardashti and Roni Sarig also have a great chapter with some fun Passover seder projects for children in their book “The Jewish Family Fun Book”. All three books are published by Jewish Lights Publishers. This year the Foundation for Jewish Camp has published an activity book for the seder to promote its “One Happy Camper” program. The activity book includes games, Madlibs, and even Capture the Flag using the afikomen.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s “Camp Passover” activity book for the seder

SKITS
Many families perform skits during their seder, which is a great way to observe the commandment that we should all act as though we were actually part of the exodus from Egyptian bondage. Behrman House, a wonderful educational publishing house, has a couple scripts on their website. “Seder Time” is a skit by Stan Beiner, a well known Jewish educator who created Sedra Scenes. Meredith Shaw Patera’s “The Courage of Nachshon” is another good skit available on the Behrman House Passover activity website. Aish Hatorah lists ways for participants to act out the ten plagues on their website.

On Facebook and Twitter I asked people to share some of the innovative activities they have adopted at the seder to keep the children participating and the adults from dozing off. Here are some of my favorites:

Rabbi Michael S. Jay: We’ve had children prepare commercials for Matzah or other symbols of the Seder.

Rabbi David Locketz: I find out what songs all the kid who are coming have learned at school and then incorporate them into magid. Give out parts in advance and we act it out in song and brief dialogues.

David Kaufman: We had all the kids bring knapsacks filled with the items they would want to make sure they brought out of Egypt. Then, when we begin Maggid, we all get up from the table, they take their knapsacks, and we make an “exodus” into the living room. There, we start doing Maggid, and the kids also show us what they would bring and explain why.

Prof. Michael Satlow: I had the kids do a play of the Exodus from the Egyptian perspective. It really taught me something and opened discussion.

Jennifer Levin Teper: I make oragami frogs and use them as placecards. Then everyone, can “jump” them during the seder. Our favorite is trying to get it to land in your water glass.

Melanie Dunkelman Hartong: I found silly masks of the plagues at my local Kroger- kids thought it was hysterical!!

Lynn Davis: We throw plagues (tiny plastic animals, etc.) but I realize that a rowdy seder isn’t for everyone!

Rabbi Judah Isaacs: My sister buys a Pesach puzzle and gives out the pieces for answers to questions. She has the kids put the puzzle together during the Seder.

Shawn Broida: When our kids were little and we knew we couldn’t get 6 cousins under age 8 to sit through a seder, we decided to do a bedouin seder on the floor and let them roam! Aside from a few almost disasters with the seder plate getting kicked across the room, it was more relaxing for everyone and the kids had a ball!

I wish everyone a Chag Sameach… may your seders be educational, innovative, and memorable!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Purim and the Oscars

Yesterday was another fun Purim holiday celebration, but I didn’t post a Purim satire this year (last year’s edition). I also usually post a list of my favorite Purim YouTube videos before the holiday, but there really weren’t ten quality videos I could find to make my Top Ten Purim Videos list. A few standouts included Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan’s Moves Like Graggers, a Taylor Swift parody from Temple Emunah of Lexington, Massacheusetts and Matt Rissien’s Jewish Thrift Shop Parody rap. The Maccabeats posted a mashup of President Barack Obama and some celebrities singing their famous Hanukkah parody and there is a handful too many of ridiculous Harlem Shake Purim versions. All in all, 2013 was not the most creative year for Purim schtick on YouTube.

But that didn’t mean the Academy Awards didn’t turn into a big Purim Shpiel hosted by Seth MacFarlane. The creator of “Family Guy” and the recent movie “Ted” tried his hand at hosting the Oscars last night. And while the Oscars technically occurred after Purim had ended, there were several odd connections between the award show and the Jewish holiday.

Seth MacFarlane (Photo Credit: ABC News)

Seth MacFarlane as Haman
First, I don’t think Seth MacFarlane did anything vicious or spiteful while hosting the Oscars last night. Yes, there were some edgy Jewish jokes, a tasteless Hitler reference and some racial jokes that made many people squirm, but I don’t think anything was over-the-top. The Anti-Defamation League obviously took exception with MacFarlane’s joke that referenced the old Jews Control Hollywood canard. ADL National Director Abe Foxman issued a press release today stating:

While we have come to expect inappropriate “Jews control Hollywood” jokes from Seth MacFarlane, what he did at the Oscars was offensive and not remotely funny.  It only reinforces stereotypes which legitimize anti-Semitism.  It is sad and disheartening that the Oscars awards show sought to use anti-Jewish stereotypes for laughs.
For the insiders at the Oscars this kind of joke is obviously not taken seriously.  But when one considers the global audience of the Oscars of upwards of two billion people, including many who know little or nothing about Hollywood or the falsity of such Jewish stereotypes, there’s a much higher potential for the ‘Jews control Hollywood’ myth to be accepted as fact.
We wish that Mr. MacFarlane and the Academy Awards producers had shown greater sensitivity and decided against airing a sketch that so reinforces the age-old canard about Jewish control of the film industry.

Haman tried to turn Shushan against the Jews by telling people they were a controlling nation. He obviously wasn’t joking around though. What I find interesting is that when Jews win Academy Awards people say that it’s because the Jews control Hollywood, but no one ever claims the Jews control the voting for the Nobel Prize and a disproportional amount of Jews have won those awards over the years.

Jennifer Lawrence as Esther
The Oscar for Best Female Actor in a Lead Role went to Jennifer Lawrence for her performance in Silver Linings Playbook. and very well deserved in my opinion. In the movie she helps redeem Bradley Cooper’s character and in doing so saves his family (from bankruptcy). Lawrence is an unlikely heroine in that story much like the Queen Esther character in the Purim narrative.

That Story in Iran/Persia
Perhaps the most direct connection to the Purim story is in the winner of the Best Movie category. On Sunday, October 14 I had a couple hours to kill on the other side of town between officiating at a funeral and then heading to a hotel to officiate at a wedding. I passed by a movie theater and figured I’d see if the timing worked out for me to watch a movie. Sure enough Argo was just about to begin and would end in enough time for me to get to the wedding. As the credits rolled I predicted Argo would go on to win movie of the year. Even though it was up against fierce competition with Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook, Les Miserables and Lincoln, I had a feeling it would win. Brilliantly directed by Ben Affleck, the protagonist played by Affleck, a modern-day Mordechai, saves the six U.S. diplomats with the help of the Canadian ambassador.

Jewish Man Frees Slaves
Okay, so the Jews weren’t technically slaves in Shushan (Persia), but they had been slaves at one point in Egypt. And the Purim story has the Jewish Mordechai freeing the persecuted Jews. The Best Male Actor award went to the Jewish Daniel Day-Lewis (his mother’s Jewish, look it up!) for his performance of Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves. Alright, a bit of a stretch there.

The votes are certainly split as to how well Seth MacFarlane did in his first (and only?) attempt as host of the Oscars. I think he’s better suited for R-Rated comedy and Comedy Central Roasts, which make it difficult to adapt to the global audience watching the Oscars. All in all, while MacFarlane didn’t do the greatest job as host, the awards show was fun to watch and I think the right people were chosen to win awards. And for many Jewish people (both those inside and outside Hollywood circles), it was a fun day in which the Purim celebration continued right into Oscar viewing parties. And I’m sure the connections to the Purim story didn’t end when the Oscars telecast ended. There were likely some “After Parties” that resembled a King Ahashverosh feast too.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Tu Bishvat, a Super Bowl Ad and Israel’s Soda Water Company

This Shabbat is one of the four Jewish New Years set forth in the Mishna. Tu Bishvat, or Jewish Arbor Day, occurs on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat. In addition to being a birthday for trees, the holiday is deeply connected to the agricultural cycle of the Land of Israel and in modern days has become a day for celebrating the environment and reminding us of our responsibility as good stewards of the land.

At the core of this ethic for environmental stewardship is the concept of bal tashchit – the ban on wonton destruction of the earth’s resources. This environmental principle, which includes waste reduction, should be a focus on the holiday of Tu Bishvat.

Daniel Birnbaum of SodaStream with Conservative Rabbis in Israel (Masorti Mission 2012)
Daniel Birnbaum of SodaStream speaking to Conservative rabbis in Israel

This value was articulated in a presentation I heard last month while I was visiting Israel. Together with a dozen of my rabbinic colleagues, we toured the headquarters of SodaStream, the makers of consumer home carbonated water products. Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of publicly traded SodaStream, explained to our group the positive environmental impact of his products. “This is the new way to do soda. We’re revolutionizing it with a smarter way to enjoy soft drinks.”

In his presentation to our group, Birnbaum showed how SodaStream reduces the amount of packaging waste from cans and bottles. The company, he explained, also eliminates much of the pollution caused by the transport of bottled beverages. SodaStream has sponsored initiatives promoting waste reduction and improved quality of tap water. In his PowerPoint presentation, Birnbaum explained the alarming statistic that “460 billion bottles and cans manufactured every year, of which the vast majority are dumped as waste across parks, oceans and landfills.”

SodaStream's Daniel Birnbaum with Rabbi Jason Miller
With SodaStream’s Daniel Birnbaum at the Mishor Adumim production facility

In its most aggressive marketing campaign alerting the international community to the negative effects of plastic bottle waste, SodaStream displayed a 318-square foot cage in several countries. The cage contained 10,657 empty bottles and cans showing that the waste produced by one family over the course of five years from beverage containers can be replaced by a single SodaStream bottle. The “Cage Campaign” has now been on display in over 30 countries.

This aggressive marketing campaign erupted into controversy when one of SodaStream’s cages was erected in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2012. Coca-Cola demanded that SodaStream remove all of the empty products from the cages bearing Coca-Cola’s trademark logos and threatened to sue SodaStream if they didn’t comply. Birnbaum not only rebuffed Coca-Cola’s demands, but he went on the offensive by ordering the display of one of those cages right outside Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta.

Controversy is obviously something Birnbaum isn’t afraid of. Over the years he has taken a lot of heat for the location of SodaStream’s world headquarters in the territories outside of Jerusalem in the West Bank settlement of Mishor Adumim. The European Union’s highest court ruled in 2010 that SodaStream was not entitled to claim a “Made in Israel” exemption from EU customs payments because of the company’s primary manufacturing plant is technically located outside of Israel. Human right’s groups like Peace Now have long objected to SodaStream’s operations in the territories and publicly disparage SodaStream on the web.

Pro-Palestinian activists who advocate consumer boycotts of goods produced outside of Israel’s green line have protested SodaStream around the globe, saying the company has profited from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. They say Palestinian workers suffer from low wages and poor working conditions at SodaStream, but Birnbaum argues that none of that is true. For his part, Birnbaum claims he is a strong proponent of human rights, and that thanks to SodaStream thousands of local Palestinians in Mishor Adumim have good paying jobs. Those workers, he explains, would not be able to support their families without their jobs in SodaStream’s manufacturing plant.

In an effort to capitalize on SodaStream’s success, Birnbaum will be spending approximately $3.8 million on a 30-second spot during next month’s Super Bowl. Its recent “Setting the Bubbles Free” commercial, showing hundreds of soft drink bottles exploding when a person uses a SodaStream machine, was banned in the UK when television advertising monitoring agency Clearcast argued that it denigrates the bottled drink industry. Birnbaum is considering legal action in the UK and has countered publicly by asking, “Are we really being censored for helping to save the environment? This might be the first time in the world when an environmental approach has been shut down by the media to protect a traditional industry.” It will be interesting to see what Birnbaum and SodaStream have in store for the over 111 million Super Bowl viewers around the world.

I was quite impressed listening to Birnbaum speak passionately about SodaStream’s products and its environmental concern for the global good. The former CEO of Nike Israel (he also gained experience at Pillsbury and Procter & Gamble), was raised in a home in which strong Jewish values were preached. Birnbaum’s father was a Conservative rabbi who emphasized the importance of the State of Israel and philanthropic giving (Birnbaum is a major donor to the Masorti Judaism, the Conservative Movement’s Israeli affiliate). While Birnbaum, a Harvard MBA, is committed to his life as an executive businessman, he also gets a chance to participate as a leader in a synagogue for a few days each year. He travels to Cincinnati to serve as the High Holiday cantor of Adath Israel Congregation each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur along with his wife Bat Ella, an accomplished Israeli musician.

Daniel Birnbaum, High Holiday Cantor at Adath Israel Congregation Cincinnati
Daniel Birnbaum with the High Holiday choir at Adath Israel Congregation

As Tu Bishvat approaches, I would encourage people to learn more about SodaStream and its positive impact on the environment. Yes, it is a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ with major investors and a goal of becoming a billion dollar company, but it also has a vision based on the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam — improving our earth. SodaStream will never be loved by the BDS (boycot-divest-sanction) movement, pro-Palestinian groups, or the big soda corporations like Coke and Pepsi. However, it is making a great product, putting thousands of at-risk Palestinians into the work force, and trying to make an impact in reducing the world’s waste from bottles and cans.

I guarantee that after SodaStream’s Super Bowl commercial airs, Daniel Birnbaum will be the topic of conversation around the world. He’s a guy who should be admired, not denigrated. So on this Tu Bishvat I hope people drink a soda water L’chayim to Daniel Birnbaum, set the bubbles free, and pledge to help eliminate waste caused by all those unnecessary plastic bottles that are ruining our environment. Happy Tu Bishvat!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Non-Jews Doing Hanukkah

A couple years ago I wrote about non-Jews observing certain Jewish customs. I looked at such examples as Justin Bieber reciting the Shema in Hebrew before each concert as well as non-Jews maintaining kosher diets, hanging mezuzahs on their front doors, dancing the Hora at weddings and erecting sukkahs.

The new trend seems to be non-Jewish celebs adopting Hanukkah rituals. While conservative pundits in the media claim there is a war on Christmas, just the opposite seems to be true about Hanukkah. More menorahs are being displayed in the public square. Chabad Lubavitch has politicians and celebrities light super-sized menorahs. Even Gene Robinson, a gay Bishop, brought a Hanukkah gift of dreidels to Jon Stewart when he visited the Daily Show during the holiday. And a call for new Hanukkah songs has been answered by a rapper.

Heeb asks, “Has Hanukkah become the must-be-seen celebration for the hip and famous, regardless of semitic bona-fides?” What prompted that question was a simple tweeted photo from singer/actress Zooey Deschanel, who is Roman Catholic. Deschanel’s tweet said “Happy Chanukah y’all!!!” and was linked with an Instagram photo of her lighting the Hanukkah menorah. That photo has received close to 100,000 likes on Instagram.

During the Hanukkah holiday this year, we also saw one NBA team pay tribute to their Jewish fans. The Houston Rockets posted a video of their players singing the Dreidel song. Some of the players really got into the spirit. The video includes former New York Knicks surprise star Jeremy Lin, but the highlight is Carlos Delfino who seems to have a lot of fun singing about the dreidel he made.


Jimmy Fallon also got into the Hanukkah holiday spirit by singing a dreidel parody to the tune of Flo Rida’s “Whistle” song. With Rashida Jones, who is Jewish, Fallon pulled a dreidel out of his pocket and began signing, “Can you spin my dreidel baby, dreidel baby, let me know. Girl I know that you’re not Jewish so I’ll start real slow. Then Rashida Jones sings, “Just put your fingertips together and you say Shalom.”

The ultimate in non-Jews doing Hanukkah this holiday season has to be the recently released Hanukkah rap by Too $hort, one of West Coast hip hop’s pioneers. While Too $hort might be best known for his hit song “The Ghetto,” his Hanukkah rap might catch on (at least in Jewish high schools). Too $hort released the Hanukkah rap song exclusively on TMZ.com and it can be listened to here. He’s not the first non-Jew to release a Hanukkah song of course. The Barenaked Ladies have sung several Hanukkah songs and rock band Incubus put out a nice Hanukkah song back in 2007.
So while many Jewish parents complain that not enough emphasis is placed on Hanukkah during the winter holiday season, many non-Jewish celebs have catapult the Jewish holiday into the mainstream. Maybe rapper Too $hort wouldn’t be Jewish parents first choice to sing about Hanukkah, but the thought is there. Hanukkah will never be as popular as Christmas, but the Jewish holiday about the miracle of light and an unforeseen victory over the tyrant Greco-Roman army is getting its due in pop culture.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller