Most everyone knows that Jews light a menorah and spin a dreidel once a year around Christmas. But there are so many more rich customs that bring families, love, spiritual connection, and food together. In fact, being Jewish is a culture all on its own. This is one of the things celebrated by the Jewish Heritage Festival. “The Festival will express the heart and soul of Jewish Florida. For a single day it will intertwine the sounds, sights, and spirit of Jewish culture and bring together every facet of the Jewish Community, young and old, singles and families, regardless of their religious and cultural background,” expressed Jeff Bigman, the Festival Chair in the 2018 program. To get in the festival spirit, here is your basic Jewish culture guide:
Although Jews tend to be thought of as one community, there are many subgroups within the Jewish community. The different denominations of Jews approach the religion and its practices differently, including the holidays. In the United States, the major denominations of Judaism are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist. And of course, there are those that do not identify with any denomination. However the beautiful thing about Judaism is that despite these differences, we all stand and work together to celebrate the same values.
Originally the name for the Jewish people was the Hebrews. Now Hebrew does not necessarily have a religious affiliation and it is the official language of Israel. It is also considered a sacred language as it is the language of the Torah and many Jewish prayers. It’s related to Arabic, originally had no vowels but that eventually changed, and notably, it is written from right to left.
You can’t talk about Jewish culture without mentioning Jewish comedy. Everyone has heard of Jewish legends like Larry David, Joan Rivers, and Howard Stern. These legends among many others need no explanation. Less known, but sure to be known by any child that attended religious school are the stories of the “Wise Men of Chelm.” As explained by the HuffPost, “The central conceit of the “Wise Men of Chelm” tales is that the residents pride themselves on being the wisest, most erudite and sagest people in the land, when in fact they are buffoons and gullible fools.” Alas, comedy is taught at a young age to Jewish children.
Holidays Begin At Sunset
Before diving into the holidays, it’s important to note that holidays begin at sunset. In Judaism, the day begins at sundown, rather than at midnight. Therefore each holiday begins at sundown the previous day. Holidays are a big part of Jewish culture, below are some of the most important and well-known.
Shabbat: The Day Of Rest
Most holidays occur yearly, except for one. Shabbat begins at sunset on Friday and ends Saturday at sunset. It is the day of rest that celebrates god’s completion of the universe. The customs depend on the denomination and how strictly the no work requirement is observed. While some observe the Sabbath strictly by walking to temple, avoiding tv, and phones, others observe the day much more liberally. By far my favorite custom is the “tot Shabbat” service where the young members of the temple are guided through a kid-friendly version. It’s loud and it’s happy, and most of all, it’s a time we all come together to teach the next generation.
Greetings: Shabbat Shalom which translates as Peaceful Sabbath, Gut Shabbas which translates as Good Sabbath.
Rosh Hashanah: The New Year
Literally translated as “head of the year,” this is celebrated as the Jewish New Year and begins the high holidays. But it is not at all like the American New Year. Rather, many will ask for forgiveness and apologize for indiscretions made the year before in preparation for Yom Kippur. Like many Jewish holidays, there are many traditional foods on the table for Rosh Hashanah: apples dipped in honey (symbolizing the wish to have a sweet new year), round challah (symbolizing the cyclical nature of the year), a fish head (to symbolizing diving into the year with strength and not with weakness), and pomegranates (symbolizing that the wish for our merits be many like the pomegranate’s many seeds – 613 – mirroring the 613 commandments in the Torah).
Greeting: Chag Sameach which translates to Happy Holidays and is an appropriate greeting for most holidays, particularly Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Passover. Other Rosh Hashanah specific greetings include Happy New Year, Shanah Tovah which translates to “good year,” May you be inscribed for a good year (in the book of life), L’shana tova tikatevu.
Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement
This is the day you need to get to the temple early because otherwise you won’t find a parking spot! It is the Day of Atonement and is the holiest day of the year. It’s a day for reflecting on the past year, the good and the bad, and figuring out how to do better in the new year. My children connect with the tradition of tashlich, which is where you throw bread into the River to symbolize throwing away all you’ve done wrong in the last year paving your way for a second chance. Although it is a solemn holiday, by the end, you are at peace with others and god, and therefore we consider it a happy holiday.
Greeting: It is not appropriate to wish people a Happy Yom Kippur, instead wish someone an easy fast or Shanah Tovah.
Hanukkah: The Festival Of Lights (with 8 crazy nights)
If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me growing up if I got 8 presents….. I didn’t and neither do my children.
Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of a small amount of oil that miraculously burned for 8 days after the Jewish Maccabees’ victory over the Syrian Greek army and they recaptured the Temple. Lighting the menorah each night commemorates the miracle with the oil and is also why it is customary to eat foods fried in oil such as latkes (potato pancakes & yes they are as good as they sound). Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, but it is truly a festive and happy holiday. At any Hanukkah celebration, you will find festive songs, children with gelt (chocolate coins), and dreidel being played. One of our newer favorite traditions is to read Hanukkah books, including our favorite Shmelf the Hanukkah Elf. Most of all, it serves as a reminder that there are miracles all around us everyday, big and small.
Greeting: Happy Hanukkah
Yom Hashoah: Holcaust Memorial Day
Holocaust Memorial Day – this is a day to remember and mourn the six million people that died during the Holocaust. As this is a relatively new tradition, rituals are still being created to observe this day for remembrance.
Greeting: Similar to Yom Kippur, it is not appropriate to wish people a Happy Yom Hashoah. It is not a religious day so no greeting is necessary but you could wish someone a peaceful day.
Related: If you are looking for ways to teach your children about the Holocaust, see our article, Remebering The Holocaust: 8 Practical Tips to Teach your Kids.
Feature Photo Credit: Photographer Paige Wilson, Ormond Beach Observer