Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thanksgiving Does Need a Haggadah

(Cross posted from my MigdalorGuysBlog)

EstherK posted this ReTweet a few days back

RT @Phil_Brodsky: How is is that there is no "hagadah" for Thanksgiving, yet we all know exactly what the holiday is about? #JEd21

At the time, I read it, sort of nodded my head, and didn’t give it much thought

Today, when I noticed it again, I began to give it some thought, and decided that, while it makes an interesting point, I’m not sure it’s an accurate one.

Judaic scholars tell us that the Haggadah had to have been around in some form since at least 200 C.E., because the Mishna, in Pesakhim, already lays out a rather specific seder (order) for the observance of Pesakh. These scholars attempt to say that the basic form of the Pesakh Seder was already in place during second Temple times. Other scholars argue that this is just an  attempt at wishful thinking in order to insist that the “Last Supper” was indeed a Passover Seder.  These scholars argue that the Haggadah as we know it, was developed in response to the destruction of the second Temple, the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, and the rising influence of Christianity.

The oldest extant haggadah text dates from the 10th century C.E. (from the Siddur of Saadia Gaon.) The 13th-15th centuries C.E. saw the flourishing of illuminated Haggadot. Today, of course, we have many, many Haggadot, with variations, but all pretty much adhering to the same basic formulas, rituals, and understandings. The Seder may have grown, changed, been adapted over time, but its essence remains the same as it has been for thousands of years.

In contrast, Thanksgiving can only trace its official roots back 146 years to 1863, when President Lincoln first proclaimed a national holiday of Thanksgiving. He did that only after 40 yeers of persistent efforts by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale, best known as the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” to have a national Thanksgiving holiday established. While we like to fantasize the history of Thanksgiving and trace it back to that famous banquet at Plymouth Plantation in 1693 (though Virginia claims the first thanksgiving occurred at Berkley Plantation in 1619) there’s no clear and direct linkage, other than that which we mythologize.

In 1789 President Washington issued a proclamation

"to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.”

Subsequent Presidents and State Governors continued to proclaim days of Thanksgiving. In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of Thanksgiving in the midst of the Civil War (largely persuaded, as previously mentioned, by Sara Josepha Hale.) Subsequent presidents continued this annual proclamation. FDR tried changing it to one week earlier (trying to spur Xmas shopping in the depression) but met with such resistance that, after two years of trying the change (which many states did not follow) Congress passed a bill making the fourth Thursday of November an official national holiday of Thanksgiving.

Enough history (though there’s lots more.) Can we truly say that all who celebrate Thanksgiving today fully comprehend and understand its meaning? I’m not so sure every family Thanksgiving feast these days would appropriately grace a Currier and Ives engraving. Thanksgiving is, for many, the official kickoff to the Xmas shopping season. (Clearly,the following day, now called “Black Friday” is a greater focus for many than actually offering thanks to their understanding of the Deity for the bounty of this good earth.  Plenty of Thanksgiving dinners give but brief lip service to the whole idea of giving thanks to G”d, and others are merely PTSD-inducing toxic-family gatherings.

While we can say that not everyone who observes the Passover Seder buys into the ideas and concepts it espouses, it  can be reasonably argued that they at least can learn or come to understand what the point/purpose of the Seder is. The Haggadah is the vehicle that makes that possible. As a modern, liberal Jew, I am willing to take great liberties with the Haggadah. There is much in it that troubles me, and that I choose to omit or replace. (“Pour out your wrath” being but one example.) Nevertheless, I am thankful there is a Haggadah. It has enabled this observance to survive, with most essential meanings intact, for thousands of years. In only a few hundred years, Thanksgiving has already morphed. It is not at all clear that the majority of those observing Thanksgiving truly understand what the holiday is all about. It is not as self-evidently clear as we perhaps wish it might be, or, perhaps more to the point, it often interferes with other values we might hold in esteem (like watching grown men throw a pigskin around and tackle each other, eating like a glutton, enabling dysfunctional families to pretend all is normal, etc.)

Thanksgiving as it exists today is not the holiday imagined by Sara Josepha Hale; not like the harvest feasts held in 1619 or 1693; not like the national coming together envisioned by Lincoln; perhaps a bit more like that imagined by FDR as a tool to stimulate the economy, but still not the same. The Passover Seder of today is certainly not the Seder of 100, 500, 1000, or 1500 years ago, but it is far from being unrecognizable to those who did observe it in those days. We owe that to the Haggadah.

So maybe this country needs the equivalent of a Haggadah for for Thanksgiving. We have the beginnings of such a thing in the way we fancifully are taught the stories of those first Thanksgivings in school. There’s no great crime in incorporating myths and legends into such a document-the Passover Haggadah certainly does so.

Of course, just like Judaism exists, even requires, tension – that effect of l’havdil that is inescapable – that balance between yetzer tov and yetzer ra – so, too, does American exist with, perhaps even require by its democratic nature, some tensions. The tension between a democracy whose constitution has a clause preventing the establishment of a state religion, yet which prints “In G”d We Trust” on its legal tender. Creating a Thanksgiving Haggadah that fairly treats all Americans-atheists, religionists, et al- could be a significant challenge. I think there are lessons on how to do this that could be drawn from how the Jewish world, with all its differences, has handled the Haggadah.

So, who wants to take a crack at it?

@2009 by Adrian A. Durlester (aka Migdalor Guy)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Cool/Uncool Cycle

Recently, EstherK posted a great blog entry, her Manifesto:  Social Media and Jewish Organizations. In it, she made a great observation, while commenting about the changing dynamics on FaceBook, as more and more older folks were joining up, and younger folks were starting to leave. She wrote:

anywhere that their parents go regularly becomes a little less cool - which might B its own lesson 4 Jewish organizational life

Yes, Esther, there certainly is a lesson for Jewish organizational life in there. However, I’m not sure what the lesson is, or how obvious it is—for one primary reason. For the most part, the parents of students in supplementary Jewish education do NOT regularly participate in synagogue life (some hardly even participate in the small portion of synagogue life that directly involves the religious school.) Thus, by definition, since parents don’t seem to want to be at shul, isn’t shul a place where the teens and tweens should want to be, if for no other reason than that their parents aren’t there?

What are we overlooking here? Why isn’t the mass absence of parental presence like a beacon to the teens and tweens flashing “it’s cool here, because your parents aren’t here."?” The obvious answer is, of course, that the parents are requiring their teens and tweens to go to religious school and events at the synagogue. Here’s a radical thought—what if parents stopped insisting, and instead made a big, loud, and obvious fuss about how they would never be caught dead at shul? All of a sudden, being at religious school, youth and teen events, maybe even services, could climb way up in the “cool” department.

Perhaps it might be more interesting to have  a shul full of teens and tweens engaging and socializing, instead of bored adults ortho-mumbling their way through the motions (or, on the opposite end, new-age adults seeking their spiritual connection, chanting and drumming their way to nirvana, and spending 20 minutes on each and every syllable of the Shema.)

If older folks stopped using FaceBook in droves, would there be a resurgence of usage by younger people? Or has the “disturbance in the force” been enough to permanently taint FaceBook’s status and send the younger folks out to become part of the next big thing? Can “cool” status be re-attained once it has been lost? Is Jewish education doomed forever to be uncool? I sure hope not.

As a Jewish educator, I’ve always worked to make my school a “cool place to be.” I wonder, however, how much of that “cool” was only in my imagination. Does there mere fact that schools are being run by (for the most part) older adults make them permanently uncool, with no hope of redemption?

Shall we try an experiment? Should we ask parents everywhere to stop insisting their students go to religious school, and participate in synagogue life, while mounting a clandestine viral campaign through FaceBook to let the kids know “hey, there’s no adults around shul – it must be the coolest place to be.” Perhaps in no time at all, our religious school and youth groups will be overwhelmed with active, happy participants. Jewish kids will have found a place as cool to be as FaceBook. Judaism and Jewish education will experience a resurgence. Synagogues will become as hip as mosh pits or raves once were (hm-what are the modern equivalents of those now ancient but once cool things?)

Then, curiosity will set in, and adults will begin to wonder why all the kids seems to be hanging out at the synagogue all the time. A few intrepid early adopters will get their feet wet attending some Adult Ed program, or a service, or some social event at the synagogue. Before long, more and more adults will be coming to shul  just like more and more adults began to join FaceBook.

Then the cycle will begin again. The kids will realize “the shul is becoming uncool – too many adults here. Let’s go somewhere else.”

Are we forever doomed to repeat this tail wagging the dog cycle? How can we break out of it? How can we create a world in where there is a larger area of shared “cool” between the young and the old, with great respect for young and old alike at times choosing to be in areas that aren’t cool to the others?

Please help me believe that I haven’t chosen to dedicate my life to something that will forever be totally uncool.

Adrian (aka Yoeitzdrian aka Migdalorguy)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Welcome to Yoeiztdrian

OK, so why this blog?I already have a few other blogs, where I share my thoughts and passions about
There's a passion in my life that is a subset of Judaism and Jewish Education, and that's the intersection of technology with Judaism and Jewish Education. I decided some time ago to focus more of my time and energy on this passion, and seek opportunities to teach and learn with others with similar interests.

That's why I created Yoeiztdrian! In case the name's raison d'etre isn't obvious, here are the clues:
Put them together, and you get Yoeitzdrian, the name I've given to my work as a consultant/teacher (and learner) on the uses of technology in Jewish Education and Judaism.

Here's I'll be sharing my thoughts on these subjects, as well as the interesting thoughts and ideas of others. Come join the conversation.