Raksha Bandhan: Celebrating Bonds between Brothers and Sisters

Women at marketplace looking at bracelets

Women shop for Raksha Bandhan. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

MONDAY, AUGUST 4: Across India and in Hindu communities worldwide, the sacred bonds between brothers and sisters are honored on Raksha Bandhan. Over many centuries, the rakhi (from Sanskrit, “the tie or knot of affection”) has evolved from simple, handspun threads into bangles adorned in jewels, crystals, cartoon characters and even political figures.

Two sisters renew bonds with their brother on Raksha Bandhan

Two sisters celebrate the holiday with their brother in a photo this family submitted to the Wikimedia Commons 2019 campaign, called “Wiki Loves Love.” Photo credit: Aasthap-dsc.

On a broader scale, Raksha Bandhan is a time for harmonious existence and a bond between leaders—teachers, political figures, civil authorities—and those they serve.

RAKSHA BANDHAN: COLORS AND RITUALS

Weeks before the culmination of Raksha Bandhan, Indian shops offer a bright palette of threads for women making their own rakhi; shops also are stocked with colorful premade rakhi. Men also shop market stands, searching for a token of love for their sisterly Raksha Bandhan companion.

The morning of the festival, brothers and sisters greet one another in, if possible, the presence of other family members. The sister ties a rakhi on her brother’s wrist, reciting prayers for his well-being and applying a colorful tilak mark to his forehead. The brother responds with thanks and a renewal of his sibling commitment, and the two indulge in sweet foods. The brother presents the sister with a gift, and everyone present rejoices in the gladness of family—often with a festive meal.

Some of the most popular Indian treats enjoyed on Raksha Bandhan may be surprisingly sweet to Westerners unaccustomed to Indian cuisine. A prime example is gulab jamun. Think of a donut hole soaked in syrup! India-based NDTV’s Food channel already has published tips for home-made gulab Jamun. Want other culinary options? NDTV’s Food channel also published these 11 suggestions for other delightful holiday dishes. The non-alcoholic Mango Basil Colada sounds especially refreshing!

Interested in making your own rakhi? Find 15 kid- and adult-friendly ideas at the blog Artsy Craftsy Mom, which features simple to complex DIY rakhi instructions.

A National Holiday

Raksha Bandhan is so popular that nearly every year government officials across India announce some kind of new service or public improvement related to the holiday. This year, one widely reported news story is a policy—in some regions—to offer free bus transportation for 24 hours so women can easily reach their brothers.

Each year, there also are efforts to encourage fitness on the holiday. One example, from The Times of Indiasuggests healthier choices for family banquets—and even suggests that a rakhi could be a fitness band.

Many families and organizations enjoy trying to take their festivities to extremes—competing for slots in the record books. For 2019, India-based Prokerala magazine takes a look at some of the records—and attempts at records.

Finally—and only in India—one of the country’s shelters for cows, sacred animals in Hinduism, has sparked headlines across the country for its new line of cow dung rakhis. No kidding! It’s one of a number of fundraisers to help support the shelter.

Purim: Jewish festival of Esther’s victory includes cookies, masquerade

Two plates of triangular-shaped, jelly-filled pastries

Hamantaschen, or “Haman’s pockets,” are a Purim treat. Photo by xeno4ka, courtesy of Pixabay

SUNSET MONDAY, MARCH 9: Eat! Drink! Be merry! The story of Purim is found in the pages of the book of Esther in the Hebrew scriptures of the Bible.

Today, with the start of Purim, fruit-filled cookies are served, outrageous costumes are donned, plenty of wine is consumed and comical skits entertain jovial audiences. In the synagogue, readings from the book of Esther evoke hissing, booing and stomping, as Jews “blot out” the name of the villainous Haman. Interestingly, the name of G_d is not mentioned in the book of Esther, and many Jews interpret this as indication that G_d works in ways that are not always apparent. On Purim, disguises and costumes serve as symbolism of G_d “hidden” behind the scenes.

ESTHER, MORDECAI AND AHASUERUS: THE STORY

When the beautiful young Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, the king of Persia, she hid her Jewish identity. Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, held a key position in the kingdom but was hated by the king’s advisor for refusing to bow down to him. In a rage, the king’s advisor—Haman—plotted to kill Mordecai and all of the Jews.

The turning point was the king’s love of Esther, who was chosen to be his queen. Though Haman had already convinced King Ahasuerus to kill the Jews in Persia, Esther fasted for three days, approached the king and revealed her own Jewish identity, pleading with the king to save the Jewish population. The king later hanged Haman and his 10 sons on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai. The Jewish people in Persia were saved from the plot of Haman.

Popular Jewish author and columnist Debra Darvick, who penned This Jewish Life with real-life stories about men, women and children observing the festivals and milestones that mark the Jewish calendar, describes the way families approach the holiday of Purim this way:

“On the 14th of the month of Adar in the Jewish calendar, hilarity reigns as the holiday of Purim is celebrated. One is commanded to drink enough liquor so that it becomes impossible to distinguish between the phrases ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mor- dechai.’ In Hebrew these words become a tongue twister, so it doesn’t take much.”

OBLIGATIONS AND HAMENTASCHEN

The carnivals and masquerades of Purim are accompanied by the four primary obligations of the day: to listen to a public reading of the book of Esther in the evening and the morning; to send food gifts to friends; to give charity to the poor; and to partake in a festive meal.

The signature treat for this holiday is Hamantaschen: Haman’s pockets. FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis tells the story of baking these delicious triangular treats in her family—and provides her own recipe for these cookies.

EXTRA RECIPES: An array of Purim recipes can be found at AllRecipes. For a crunchy take on Haman’s pockets, try these—made of Rice Krispies. Thirsty? Try making your own apricot-infused bourbon for Purim.

Black History Month in February 2019

Frederick Douglass composite of images from Wikimedia Commons.

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FEBRUARY, all month long—We have a rich array of resources to recommend for your reflections on Black History Month this year. Let’s start with a question:

Why is Black History Month in February?

Carter G. Woodson

The “father of black history” was historian and author Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) who co-founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915 as well as The Journal of Negro History in 1916.

A decade later, in 1926, Woodson capitalized on two milestones that were widely observed each year among African American families: Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 and Frederick Douglass’ birthday on February 14. He wisely scheduled his new Negro History Week to appeal naturally to those communities already looking to the past in early February.

However, Woodson had a far larger vision for his observance: He wanted to encourage organized programs to teach African American history in public schools. At first, he could find only a handful of early adopters in schools in North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.

Woodson was a prolific author and argued that establishing a well-known body of history was crucial to the survival of black culture and the potential for African-American progress. “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” he wrote. In particular, Woodson admired Jewish leaders who had kept their culture, tradition and communities alive despite many historic threats to their survival.

He started with two birthdays that already were popular in African-American communities and, around those two dates, he built a national movement of educators that expanded into a month-long focus.

One-Stop Listing of National Events

The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum all are joining in tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity. Here’s a one-stop website for all of those events and programs.

A Hero’s Journey

We’ve got an excellent way to mark this annual observance. Get a copy of the new book The Black Knight and enjoy the dramatic story of Col. Clifford Worthy’s courage in agreeing to become one of the first black cadets at West Point in the 1940s after President Truman signed the order integrating the U.S. Army.

Cliff’s story is a national treasure for many reasons. Here’s one: The U.S. Military Academy traces its roots back to 1801, but the West Point Association of Graduates—its influential alumni organization—was organized in 1869 so this new year is the group’s sesquicentennial. Special events are planned all year long to celebrate the Long Gray Line. That starts with the new Winter 2019 issue of West Point magazine. If you click on that link, you can “flip through” the pages of that special issue—but we urge you to jump right to page 54, where the West Point Authors Bookshelf features Clifford Worthy’s new memoir, The Black Knight: An African-American Family’s Journey from West Point-A Life of Duty, Honor and Country. You also can learn much more about that new book on Amazon.

Confront Racism
with accurate information

100 Questions and Answers about African Americans

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The Michigan State University School of Journalism has published a very helpful guidebook, 100 Questions and Answers About African Americans.

Why does racism continue to throw up so many tragic barriers in the U.S.? Part of the problem could be that we just don’t know each other very well. The Public Religion Research Institute asked people about their closest networks. About 75 percent of White Americans said all their closest confidants were White. About 65 percent of Black respondents said all their confidants were African American. Among Hispanics, the number was 46 percent.

In the Michigan State University School of Journalism, students are trying to take make cross-cultural conversations less awkward. Students start this process by asking people what questions they get about themselves, or wish others knew the answers to. Then, the guides answer those common questions. The students hope that these guides answer baseline questions people are curious about, but might be reluctant to ask because they don’t want to embarrass themselves or offend others.

100 Questions and Answers About African Americans answers potentially awkward questions:

• Should I say Black or African American?
• Why is slavery still an issue for some people?
• Why is it that White people can’t say the n-word, but some Black people do?
• What is the Black National Anthem?
• Do Black people get sunburns?

The guide answers some common misperceptions:
• Is it true there are more Black men in prison than in college?
• Are African Americans the chief beneficiaries of affirmative action?
• Does most federal food assistance go to African Americans?
• Did Abraham Lincoln end slavery?

And the guide explains achievement in rising educational and health levels, high voter turnout and accomplishments in science, technology and the arts.

So it’s July? Hot Dog! And … Ice Cream, Chocolate and Fried Chicken, too!

Click on this delicious image to visit Joe Grimm’s Author Page on Amazon.

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JULY—Farmers and food sellers find all sorts of timely connections celebrating edible delights in every month of our calendar. When July breaks across America, we all brace for the so-called Dog Days, which begin with the rising of the Dog Star, more properly known as Sirius. Over time, that could occur as early as July 3. This year, astronomers tell us, Dog Days begin later—July 22 and extend well into August.

Click to see the Hot Dog Month Planning Guide.

Of course, Americans have come to associate hot dogs with July, particularly because of our love of July 4 Independence Day cookouts. As always, industry groups have a host of hot dog promotions rolling out this month. The mother lode comes from the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council (NHDSC). No kidding! It’s a real institution with a nine-page PDF of ideas for celebrating July as National Hot Dog Month.

The Council has details in this PDF for applicants who want to be named official NHDSC Hot Dog Ambassadors. Here is part of the group’s invitation to would-be ambassadors:

The state of Hot Dog Nation is strong and while the Hot Dog Top Dog and Queen of Wien lead the way at the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, it’s time for us to enlist official Hot Dog Ambassadors. … Everyone who enters will be classified as a Wiener Warrior with their own Wiener Warrior card.

Here at ReadTheSpirit magazine, our own resident hot dog expert is author Joe Grimm, who brought the world Coney Detroit, a colorful homage to Michigan’s favorite version of this all-American treat. Check out Joe Grimm’s books on his Amazon Author Page.

Had enough hot dog news?

Take the Washington Post ice cream quiz.

July also is National Ice Cream Month. Again, no kidding! President Ronald Reagan signed a joint resolution of Congress into law in 1984. That included declaring a National Ice Cream Day in the middle of the month, which tends to move around the calendar because retailers prefer a weekend holiday. One hub of ice cream activism is the International Dairy Foods Association. But our best newsy clip about the observance comes from The Washington Post with a fun ice cream quiz. Throughout the month, various industry groups have declared other special days related to ice cream. For example, there’s often a national day for peach ice cream and another for plain vanilla. There’s even a day in July promoted by some trade groups as National Milk Shake Day. Those “holidays” tend to be driven by industry advertisers but keep an eye out this month—and you might find some tasty treats on sale at local eateries and ice cream shops.

Chocolate is a messier celebration—that is, it’s messier to identify clearly on the calendar. All around the world, there are lots of declarations about when to celebrate chocolate, apparently because people love the stuff so much. One of these occasions falls on July 7 and is called World Chocolate Day. We say: Hey, if you love chocolate, celebrate whenever you can!

July 6 is National Fried Chicken Day. Watch your favorite national chicken chain for special deals and discounts in early July. Kentucky Fried Chicken usually marks this special occasion in some way, each year.

Enjoy!

 

 

Plan ahead to celebrate Jewish and Asian Pacific history in May

JEWISH AMERICAN HISTORY MONTH

For more than a decade, Jewish American History Month has been an official national observance. President W. Bush proclaimed the special focus in 2006 after bi-partisan congressional support. Various receptions, events and special exhibits are usually held each May and the Library of Congress set up this extensive website to provide photos, documents and historical background in general. Within that larger site, on this page, librarians link to a long list of historical materials that relate to American Jews over the last four centuries. There’s even a special section of the site welcoming teachers who are looking for classroom materials.

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ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH

President Jimmy Carter launched this special observance in 1978, following a congressional resolution. The declaration called this a commemoration of “the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.” The Library of Congress also hosts a resource-rich website. The librarians offer these links to exhibits and collections. They also offer materials for teachers.

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Christians love to laugh in Bright Week and even Holy Humor Sunday

Bright Week Procession in Jordanville New York

Bright Week Procession at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, USA.

MONDAY-SUNDAY, APRIL 17-23—If someone in your Christian community is making merry in this week after Easter—they may be tapping into traditions that stretch back nearly two millennia.

“Originally this idea of good humor in the week after Easter came from the early Greek Christians, way back in the third century or so. They called this period after Easter Bright Week and the first Sunday after Easter is Bright Sunday,” said Cal Samra, this week, the nation’s leading expert on adding a dose of laughter to services in the week after Easter.

“I’ve been doing this for 33 years and I’m still alive and well and going strong,” Cal said in an interview. Visitors to Cal’s website, the Joyful Noiseletter, had been concerned about Cal’s status, these days. Some of the coverage on Cal’s homepage looks a little dated. A Google search of news stories about congregations scheduling Holy Humor Sundays, Cal’s trademark program, also look a little dated in 2017. One of the most popular online articles about the practice is from the U.S. Catholic, still showing up prominently on Google even though it originally was published in 2000.

The journalists who produce ReadTheSpirit are among many religion newswriters nationwide who covered the impact of Cal’s newsletter in prompting mainly Protestant churches to organize laugh-out-loud services of celebration on the Sunday after Easter. One of the most influential journalists to cover Cal’s impact in his early years was David Briggs, who was Associated Press Religion Writer when he published this landmark story in 1996: Christian Merrymakers Don’t Put Gloomy Face on Lent.

For more than a decade, newspaper stories about Holy Humor Sunday services popped up coast to coast. In 2017, we’re not seeing as many—but clearly that’s not because Cal has lost his festive spirit.

AN ANCIENT CHRISTIAN TRADITION

St Isaacs cathedral St Petersburg during Bright Week with doors open

During Bright Week, the doors of the iconostasis are open at the enormous St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. Photo by Joonas Lyytinen, shared courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

For nearly 2,000 years, Eastern Orthodox Christians have called the days after Easter “Bright Week” (Wikipedia has an extensive article). In Eastern tradition, special Bright Week customs range from processions and a special focus on joyful music—to a practice of keeping the holy doors in a church’s iconostasis open to symbolize the stone rolled away from Jesus’s tomb in Gospel accounts.

There are many cultural variants on the general theme. On “Wet Monday” 2017, the New York Times published this column from a neighborhood in Brooklyn, also known as Little Poland.

At least one leading Catholic writer, in recent years, has argued that the Orthodox don’t have a corner on holy humor. This should be regarded as a universal Christian custom, says best-selling author Fr. James Martin SJ. You can read more in our earlier ReadTheSpirit interviewed with Martin about his book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.

Some Protestant denominations also have staked their claim to a good laugh post-Easter. The United Methodist Church recommends the practice—along with a link to Cal’s resources—on its Discipleship Ministries website.

CAL SAMRA’S CURRENT CAMPAIGN

At age 86, Cal told us, “I still play tennis four times a week and I try to eat natural, organic foods. I’ve stayed halfway in good shape, for my age.”

That is why, over the past couple of years, Cal’s work has shifted toward a message closely linked to Christian ministry in many denominations: promoting healthy ways of living. “I’m still very much into humor, but I’ve spent a lot of time working on health and prevention, looking back into the early work of people like John Wesley, who wrote a lot about health care. My newest book is The Physically Fit Messiah.”

 

Cal opens his new book with his familiar message: Jesus is “a joyful spirit with a keen sense of humor who used humor, as well as prayer, in his healing ministry. He was not the sad-sack Messiah portrayed in many old icons and contemporary Christian paintings. He kept exhorting his followers to ‘Be of good cheer!’”

Then, he explains why he is spending more time researching and writing about health, these days. “Looking back on the last 30 years of Joyful Noiseletter issues, we were astonished at the number of articles that focused on physical fitness, good nutrition and health.”

Want to sample some of Cal Samra’s gentle humor? Check out this sample page on his Joyful Noiseletter website.

Celebrate light and freedom at Hanukkah

A Mother and Daughter light Hanukkah candles

Mother and daughter light Hanukkah candles. (Photo by Trinitro Tolueno, who allows public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 24: On this night—and for a total of 8 nights—it’s Hanukkah. Jewish families light candles, fry up latkes and many children try their luck at a game played with a four-sided top known as a dreidel. Though not as religiously significant as other Jewish holidays, such as Passover and Yom Kippur, Hanukkah is widely celebrated, and is easily recognized even by non-Jews.

Interested in crafting your own DIY menorah? Find tips and ideas for a fun homemade menorah here.

Several inspiring themes are part of this festival, including the power of light itself at this ever-darker time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Another major theme of Hanukkah is religious freedom. As the traditional story is retold in most Jewish families, a wicked ruler more than 2,000 years ago was determined to force Jews to leave their ancient traditions behind in favor of practices drawn from Greek culture. Instead, a rebel force known as the Maccabees heroically defeated these rulers and restored the traditional rituals in the Jerusalem temple.

Did you know? The Maccabeats, an all-male a cappella group based out of Yeshiva University, is popularly known for its Hanukkah song, “Candlelight” (access the music video that’s been seen by more than 12 million viewers via YouTube).

Most Jewish families also retell a story about the small amount of sacred oil that was left in the rededicated temple—a tiny amount of oil that nevertheless managed to keep the temple’s light going for eight days. That’s why Hanukkah food traditions involve oil, to this day—especially potato pancakes better known as latkes.

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latkes and a fork by-Olga-MassovWANT TO TRY LATKES? FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis serves up a guest column about making these tasty potato pancakes.

 

THE MENORAH

Hanukkah is faithfully observed by most Jews with the lighting of candles in a nine-branched menorah with one candle for each of the eight nights and one extra candle (the shamash), which is often placed separately from the others. The shamash must be used for “practical” purposes, so that the remaining candles may be used solely for publicizing the miracle of the oil. Some families substitute small oil lamps for candles.

DEBRA DARVICK & THIS JEWISH LIFE

Cover This Jewish Life book cover by Debra Darvick

CLICK this cover to find out more about Debra Darvick’s book.

In her inspiring book, This Jewish Life, Debra Darvick writes dozens of true stories about Jewish men and women experiencing the seasons in Judaism. In one section of her book, she explains the basics about Hanukkah’s commemoration of “the Jewish victory over Syrian emperor Antiochus and his army. In 167 BC, Antiochus decreed the practice of Judaism to be an offense punishable by death. The Temple was desecrated, and the Syrians went so far as to sacrifice pigs in the Temple. A Jew named Mattathias and his five sons began a revolt not only against Antiochus, but against the Jews who were quite willing to take on the ways of the majority population and jettison Jewish practice. Three years later, the Maccabees, as the Jewish fighters were known, and their followers, were victorious and the Temple was once again in Jewish hands.”

She explains that “according to Jewish tradition, when the Temple was finally cleansed for re-dedication, there was but a single day’s supply of ritually pure oil for the ner tamid, the everlasting light that hangs in every synagogue as a symbol of God’s ever-presence. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days, the time needed to press and ritually purify additional oil for the ner tamid.”

Debra warns readers that this “is not the time of year to start a diet, for the two foods most associated with the holiday are latkes, potato pancakes, and sufganiot, Israeli for jelly donuts, both of which are fried in veritable lakes of oil.” Oh, and if that’s not a high enough calorie count—there’s also the “gelt, chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.”