Posted in Being Jewish in Toronto

Funny Comment About The “True Heroes of Christmas”

At a friend’s home during the holidays, a young, non-Jewish woman commented that her parents always told her this about Christmas:

“The real heroes at Christmas-time are the Jewish kids who never told you that Santa Claus was not real.”

That brought a smile to my face, as one of those kids who knew that secret and to this day, will never spoil the surprise, and neither will my kids!

The Tooth Fairy, on the other hand… Different story!

Hope whatever you celebrated, that it was wonderful!


Posted in Life

It’s Hanukkah Time! Hanukkah 101.

Hanukkah is one of the best known Jewish holidays because of its proximity to Christmas and as a result, many confuse it as being the Jewish Christmas because the Jewish people adopt gift-giving and decorating with the holiday.   Hanukkah, however, is a festival, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion.

During Hanukkah, a miracle is celebrated!  Upon Judah Maccabee’s defeat of the Syrians, the Second Temple in Judea was rebuilt and during the dedication, a menorah was to be lit, its candles burning every night but there was only oil enough in the temple to keep the candles lit for just one night, yet they stayed lit for 8-nights and these 8-nights are celebrated by Jewish people every years as the miracle of Hanukkah.

Now Christmas, which we know is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, (who Christians believe is the son of God), is a miracle as well, the two holidays share nothing in common except for the time of year they fall.

The Story Hanukkah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great, the King of Macedonia, a state in northern ancient Greece.  Alexander, who was tutored by Aristotle who, was undefeated in battle and is considered one of history’s most successful commanders.  Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Palestine, but allowed the lands under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy.  Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated much of Hellenistic culture, adopting the language, the customs and the dress of the Greeks.

But then something changed…

More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region and he began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar.

Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Seleucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.

According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle.

The holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: The Jewish people do not glorify war.

Chanukkah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday’s religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu’ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you won’t find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim (which has been referred to as the Jewish equivalent of Halloween because of the use of costumes).

Chanukkah is not even mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of Maccabees, which most Jewish people do not even accept as scripture.

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a menorah (or sometimes called a chanukkiah) that holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shammus (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shammus candle is lit and three blessings are recited: l’hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking G-d for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking G-d for allowing us to reach this time of year).menorah

After reciting the blessings, the first candle is then lit using the shammus candle, and the shammus candle is placed in its holder. Candles can be lit any time after dark but before midnight. The candles are normally allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour, but if necessary they can be blown out at any time after that 1/2 hour. On Shabbat, Chanukkah candles are normally lit before the Shabbat candles, but may be lit any time before candlelighting time (18 minutes before sunset). Candles cannot be blown out on Shabbat (it’s a violation of the sabbath rule against igniting or extinguishing a flame).

Each night, another candle is added from right to left (like the Hebrew language). Candles are lit from left to right (because you pay honor to the newer thing first).

On the eighth night, all nine candles (the 8 Chanukkah candles and the shammus) are lit.

On nights after the first, only the first two blessings are recited; the third blessing, she-hekhianu is only recited on the first night of holidays.

So why is there a shammus candle which lights all the other candles, you ask?  The Chanukkah candles are for pleasure only; we are not allowed to use them for any productive purpose. We keep an extra one around (the shammus), so that if we need to do something useful with a candle, we don’t accidentally use the Chanukkah candles.  The shammus candle is at a different height so that it is easily identified as the shammus. It is traditional to eat fried foods on Chanukkah because of the significance of oil to the holiday.

Food:  Among Ashkenazic Jews, this usually includes latkes – potato pancakes made up of shredded potato, onion, egg to hold it together and some spices, all fried in oil – (pronounced “lot-kuhs” or “lot-keys”).latkes

Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where there are a lot of Jewish children who have contact with Christians, as a way of dealing with our children’s jealousy of their Christian friends. It is extremely unusual for Jews to give Chanukkah gifts to anyone other than their own young children.  The only traditional gift of the holiday is “gelt,” small amounts of money (chocolate money wrapped in foil if you are lucky).

Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins (gelt). The traditional explanation of this game is that during the time of Antiochus’ oppression, those who wanted to study Torah (an illegal activity) would conceal their activity by playing gambling games with a top (a common and legal activity) whenever an official or inspector was within sight. A dreidel is marked with four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimel, Hei and Shin. These letters stand for the Hebrew phrase “Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”, a great miracle happened there, referring to the miracle of the oil. The letters also stand for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which are the rules of the game! There are some variations in the way people play the game, but the way I learned it, everyone puts in one coin. A person spins the dreidel. If it lands on Nun, nothing happens; on Gimel, you get the whole pot; on Hei, you get half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in. Keep playing until one person has everything. Then redivide it, because nobody likes a poor winner.dreydle

Festival of lights… Maybe festival of candles or festival of oil…

Hanukkah.  Chanukah.  Chanuka.  Hanuka.

Spell it as you wish.

Happy Hanukkah!

Posted in Being Jewish in Toronto, family, Life, urbandaddyblog

Doing Christmas, Jewish Style!

Ahhhhh, Christmas.  I love it!  LOVE IT!

It’s an amazing time of year where people are stressed yet generally really nice to each other which makes it the perfect time of the year when its okay to be friendly without been seen as creepy.  I’m friendly all throughout the year but I get really energized this time of year.  People hold doors for each other, they greet each other, buy gifts for each other and hug each other.  It’s a great time of year and I wish people acted like this to each other every day of the year and not just in the month of December.  

So what does that mean for me and my family, being Jewish?  Absolutely nothing,  It’s not my holiday but it’s impossible to ignore.  I love to celebrate it with friends, family, colleague, anyone who wants to have us over to participate.  I love Christmas trees.  They’re pretty whether they are decorated with few homemade ornaments, or whether they are grand and decorated to the nines.  As well, the concept of waking up in the morning to a tree full of presents is pretty cool, no?  What about leaving milk and cookies out for Santa at night.  It’s also really cool nowadays that NORAD tracks Santa by radar and that kids can send letters to Santa at the North Pole and email him.  It’s magical.  Who couldn’t get caught up in all of it.

I like best when Hanukkah comes during the Christmas season.  Hanukkah, being 8 days long and a festival pales in comparison to the marketing juggernaut that comes with Christmas, and while dubbed the “Festival of Lights” we don’t put up any sort of “Christmas” lights (remind me why, again?!?) but we light a Menorah, or candelabra which holds 9 candles, 8 candles representing the 8 nights plus one candle called the “Shamash” which is the leader candle that gets lit first and is used to lights the others, starting from one candle for the first night, all the way up to the full eight candles on the last night.

As a capitalist, I like that Christmas stimulates the economy and I’ve even seen full cups of the homeless folks in downtown Toronto (and yes I was guilty of emptying my pockets for the one older fellow in St Andrew station on Friday).  Christmas is all about giving, not receiving, and that is a great message to reinforce to our younger generations, something that may be a little lost on our Generation y’s, wouldn’t you say?

For us, it all started two weeks ago, when I took both boys to assist in the selling of Christmas trees for our Boy Scout troop.  My Dad would have been so proud – since he really liked being involved in scouting.   But it was funny, because there was myself, Stewie and Linus, another family from India who did not celebrate Christmas either and one family from the UK who were our experts.  Once the place started hopping and people were everywhere, I had to be quick on my toes answering the questions that came to me.  After cutting the bottom inch off a tree for a family – with Stewie’s help, I might add – I had to ask… Why?  So the gentleman from the UK explained to me that by doing so, if the tree was going to be put up right away, would allow the water (sugar-water preferred) to soak into the tree and keep it fresh.  Who knew? 

I was also asked which tree would last longer, and which smelled better, which had the bluest hue and which would carry the most weight (ornaments).  Before I answered these with common sense, I recalled back to my first week working in the government way back out of University when the group I was in had just completed training and were assigned to teams.  My friend’s phone rang pretty much as soon as we got to our desks and all of us crowded over to hear what he was going to say to this caller. 

What we hear was him saying; “yup. uh huh, okay, yup, uh huh, yup” and we all sat with bated breath, then he said; “What do you think?” and after a pause, he said, “okay, bye”.  Turns out he had no idea what the person said, but that “what do you think?” got him off the hook.  Well, same theory applied here, folks.

So after selling trees during our shift, we headed home with another secret no one told us… That our jackets, gloves and clothes would be covered in the pine tar from the trees and be nearly impossible to remove.

So fast forward to Christmas day, and you will find all of us sitting down to a nice fondue for dinner.  It’s the first one the kids got to take part in and boy did they enjoy it.  We had tofu, tofu fishies, fish balls, baby bok choy, cauliflower, broccoli, mushrooms, noodles, that fake crab, and so much more.  So after an hour of stuffing our faces, we watched some Treehouse on Demand, then settled in for the main event, a dark chocolate fondue in which we dipped strawberries, apples, pineapple, lemon pound cake, kosher marshmallows, and eventually I chopped up a giant triple chocolate cookie and we dipped that too.  SO MUCH CHOCOLATE! 

Needless to say, the kids loved it and we all ate so much that we were stuffed, except for the room to roast some marshmallows over the lights from the menorah.  That was great.  I showed Stewie how to do it and of course he picked up really quickly.  Him and I roasted them, toasted them and created marshmallow fireballs from them.  Stewie did not eat one, only I did, but Berry took a bite and quickly spit it back out.  Now I have to hide the BBQ lighter in case they decide to try it again.

So as I complete this post, it’s about 1:30am on the 26th of December, and there is only 365 days until Christmas (it’s a leap year this year) and I miss it already.  I want to keep the tree we have up in the office lit for a couple more weeks at the least and I hope to be able to get into a mall at some point in the next week in order to make some purchases and pick up some cool things we saw over the holidays. 

As for Hanukkah… There are still 2 more days left in the holiday and it won’t be the same now that Christmas is past, but we’ll try.  At least we get to spend some quality family time together due to the Christmas break. 

Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas and has a great end to Hanukkah.

Posted in Life, music

Amy Winehouse, dead at 27 years old

I heard this afternoon that singer Amy Winehouse was found dead in her Londan, England apartment at the very young age of 27 years old and I have to say that while I was really disappointed, I was not at all surprised.

It was probably a year or 2 ago when I did a blog post about the up and coming female role models who were getting all the press and publicity.  Lindsay Lohan – thief, druggie, alcoholic and party in a package was one OD away from death or being in jail for life.  Nicknamed “fire crotch” for being caught without her panties on one too many times, even Lohan gave Brittney Spears a run for her money.  Spears – mother of 2 young kids, also loved being caught without her panties on.  Spears was one talented singer who melted down in front of the world after shaving her head in a very public way.  Unstable?!?  You could say that.  And then there was Amy Winehouse.  Deep, beautiful voice, but with those crazy tattoos and unable to stay clean from anything.  She looked emaciated, stoned and bombed all the time until forced into rehab way too many times.  The last time we heard from her, she was booed off stage during a comeback tour when she was unable to remember her lines.  Even her band and back-up singers were trying to help her along, to no avail.

So when Winehouse walked off the stage, many people knew it was probably for the last time ever.  She was clearly unable to get over this addiction and it ended up over-taking her and costing her her life.  Ironic that her hit song was called “Rehab” and it that song she sings that she is not going to rehab, “no no no” and it was that philosophy that see’s her dead way before her time.

So can we finally move on to better role models for our young daughters please?  That Taylor Swift looks pretty wholesome… Or Selena Gomez…

Public Service Announcement:  Kiddies… It make be cool to your friends to drink and do drugs, but once you start, sometimes you can’t stop.  Just stay away!

 So who do you think is going to star in the movie based on her life, and which of the “starlets” do you think is next to fall?

Posted in Being Jewish in Toronto, family

Passover is coming… How do you make it kid-friendly?

Passover, the 8 day long celebration of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt, has always been right up there as one of my favorite holidays.

Jewish families and friends celebrate Passover with 2 seders, or ritual meals – on the first 2 nights of the holiday – during which the story of Moses and the Exodus from slavery at the hands of the Pharoah in Egypt is retold through words and symbolic foods.

Even though the core of the Passover seder is the passing on of the Exodus story to the children, it can be a challenge to balance the numerous rituals that make up the meal with the needs of kids, who get squirmy faster than you can say “Let my people go.”

To make the seder night more kid-friendly and interactive for my own children, we are looking for ways to retool a few of the old traditions and added a few new ones.

Any thoughts or suggestions?

I grew up listening to my Grandfather (Zaida) zip through the hagadah (prayer book) and my involvement was limited to having to recite the 4 questions (as the youngest) and the spilling of the wine (representing blood and plagues). Other than that, we sometimes hid the matzoh (afikoman).  I distinctly remember no wanting to spill the wine on the napkin because I thought it was a waste. 

My personal favourite is the boiled eggs mushed up with the salt water. YUM. Also matzoh butter and jam and matzoh brie’s (essentially broken up matzoh with water and egg all mized up and fried in a pan, covered by jam).

What are your memories of Passover?