Posted by Sara Smith
Those of us who grew up in the great age of Disney animated feature films (1990s) know movies such as The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to be classics. And they are. Their story lines are well known, their songs always on the tip of our tongues, and their characters unforgettable. But what is it really about these movies that made them so successful (other than the cutting-edge animation)? I’d argue that we could all see ourselves in the characters. Okay, maybe none of us are as evil as Ursella and her eels. But there is a part of each and every one of us that thinks the grass is greener on the other side, that wants to be a part of something we view as fascinating and intriguing, and feels trapped by the world we’re in.
Disney, though they are creative geniuses, did not invent the idea of a narrative with relatable characters and universal themes. Just take a look at the Bible. Open up to any page. It might not be as obvious to you as the colorful, animated films, but if you think about it, you’ll see yourself reflected in every page.
In light of the upcoming holiday of Purim, I recently started thinking about the connections between the story of Esther and Aladdin. Even without having seen Aladdin in probably over ten years, some of the parallels with the characters jumped out at me. Haman, the evil villain of the Purim narrative, is manipulative, wants to kill Mordechai, and is a power-hungry advisor to the king. Sound familiar? King Achashverosh, according to many interpretations of the story, is not aware of Haman’s plan, allows himself to be manipulated, and only seems to care about his beautiful wife, Esther, and how others perceive him. He may even have been in a constant state of paranoia and drunkenness. Aladdin’s Sultan is literally hypnotized by Jafar and gives Jafar his “ring”, presumably one of the most notable symbols of his power. Continuing on with the character parallels you can view Esther in Jasmine, Mordechai in Aladdin, Zeresh in Iago, and even God in the Genie. We’ll leave those deeper analyses for another time.
Once I thought past the character parallels (and saw the movie again), I realized that characters’ struggles are reflective of larger themes. Aladdin is not only about staying out of trouble, beating the bad guy, and falling in love. It’s about taking responsibility for your own destiny. It’s about identity. And it’s about freedom. Each one of these is a major theme in Megillat Esther.
Toward the beginning of the movie, Aladdin falls in love with Jasmine. He believes that he doesn’t have a chance with her because he is not a prince. The law says a princess must marry a prince. At first, Aladdin loses all hope. Then, after becoming the Genie’s master, he realizes that by becoming a prince, he can win Jasmine’s heart. (Later he’ll realize he just needed to be himself!) When Mordechai hears Haman’s decree to kill the Jews, he mourns. Esther doesn’t seem to think she can take action. When Mordechai reminds her that she is in the perfect position to take action, she does. And guess what, she saves the Jews. She doesn’t allow the authority of the king or a law that prohibits her from showing up unannounced to stop her. At the end of Aladdin, the Sultan tears up the law about only marrying princes just like Haman’s decree was edited to allow the Jews to fight back.
Aladdin, the street-rat, dreams of being in the palace. Jasmine, trapped inside the palace walls, dreams of venturing outside. They both struggle with their identity. They both try to hide their identity. They both eventually are forced to tell the truth. And they both live happily ever after. Following Mordechai’s instruction, Esther does not reveal her Jewish identity in the palace. It is almost as if she is living in a parallel universe, hidden behind the palace walls with her new identity. Interestingly, it is Mordechai again who convinces her to reveal herself to save the Jewish people. And guess what? When the king finally learns her real identity, he doesn’t kick her out! He grants her all her wishes, and Mordechai becomes an even more important figure in the government.
When Aladdin learns that he can make 3 wishes, he promises Genie that on his third wish, he will set him free. Ever wonder what those bracelet-type things on Genie’s wrist are? They’re shackles, symbolizing his bondage. That’s kind of how the Jews were for most of the Esther story. They were destined to be thrown around, bullied, and even killed. And at the end, they were saved, able to defend themselves, and took over Haman’s post. Still, it’s not just the Genie who is released from bondage. Both the Sultan and Jasmine are released from the strict rule of law about her impending marriage. The Sultan is released from Jafar’s spell. Aladdin is saved from a life of poverty and thievery. In this same way, the heroes of Purim are freed from themselves and from hiding behind the facade they had create for themselves.
So you see, Aladdin can teach us a lot, but Esther taught us about these things way before Aladdin came out in theaters almost twenty years ago. Purim isn’t just about the Jews being saved. It’s about us, today.
Don’t just continue on the course life is taking you because that’s where you’ve always been. It is up to us to take action for what we truly believe. We need to be ourselves and not try to be or wish we were someone else. Who we are is so much better than the person we sometimes pretend to be. And, finally, let us value the freedom that we are fortunate to have in this world. Let us not allow ourselves to become slaves to our cell phones, our favorite TV shows, our emails, and our stomachs. Let us learn to listen to our hearts and our brains so that we can be ourselves instead of hiding from ourselves.
Posted by Sara Smith
Somehow, in the last 20 or so years, the Tu Bishvat seder has become an increasingly popular Tu Bishvat ritual. Tu Bishvat seders, modeled after the Passover seder and created by 16th century Kabbalists, have become an important way of marking this date in the Jewish calendar, especially in the green age of environmentalism. I have very early memories of attending Tu Bishvat seders. Actually, I dreaded these seders because they were all about eating the fruit of the land of Israel, and I don’t eat fruit! The only parts of the seder I ever partook in were eating crackers and drinking grape juice. One of the great things about a Tu Bishvat seder, even for the most observant Jew, is that the texts and readings are flexible. In creating your own seder, you may choose to read excerpts from The Giving Tree or Hebrew poetry about the land of Israel or commentaries on Biblical imagery that relates to nature. Many of the already compiled seder texts relate to Kabbalah, spirituality, and meditation. One thing is certain if you are preparing a Tu Bishvat seder—you will need LOTS of fruit! The following blessing for eating fruit might come in handy: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam Borei peri ha-etz Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe Who creates fruit of trees. Here are some helpful resources for preparing your very own Tu Bishvat seder. Good luck! Hillel’s Tu Bishvat Seder and Helpful Information http://www.hillel.org/jewish/holidays/tubshevat/default.htm Ritual Well’s Tu Bishvat Seder http://www.ritualwell.org/holidays/tubshvat/PrimaryObject.2005-04-23.4355 Jewcology Tu Bishvat resources: http://www.jewcology.com/resources MyJewishLearning.com’s Tu Bishvat resources: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Jewish_Holidays/Tu_Bishvat.shtml
Posted by Sara Smith
Tu Bishvat, otherwise known as the Jewish New Year for the trees, is right around corner. During the Temple period, Tu Bishvat was the first day of the yearly cycle for calculating the age of trees. Today, we plant trees, have Tu Bishvat seders, and think about what it means to celebrate nature. Since the beginnings of 19th century Zionism, Tu Bishvat has become a celebration of the land of Israel. Many Jews outside of Israel donate trees while people in Israel plant them. Even outside of Israel, Tu Bishvat has traditionally been a time for Jews to become more aware of their environment. As a child, I remember visiting the TreePeople, an environmental non-profit in Los Angeles, getting my hands dirty, and learning about and planting trees. In my teenage years, I participated in other tree planting campaigns in the LA area. Many Jewish organizations have JNF (Jewish National Fund) drives during the time immediately preceding Tu Bishvat. This year, as Northern Israel finds itself in the aftermath of the Carmel Fires, these efforts are even more vital than usual. Today, Tu Bishvat is the perfect holiday for our environmentally conscious, “green” mentality. It is a day where we can evaluate our own personal relationship with the physical world and make positive commitments towards being more “friendly to nature.” Do we bring reusable bags to the grocery store? Are we being careful with the amount of paper we use? Are we wasting precious water by not fixing a leak in the sink or letting the water run for too long? Many of us do not need to be reminded to use the blue recycling bin because it has become so normal to us. If we all made an extra effort, in the hopes that other environmentally friendly actions would become the norm as well, the meaning of Tu Bishvat could have far reaching positive consequences.
Posted by Sara Smith
Coming a little more than a week after we finish celebrating Hanukkah, the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tevet (Friday, December 17th) is observed by some as a minor fast day. Biblically, the fast commemorates the siege of Jerusalem in the year 587 BCE, which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile. But beginning in the mid-twentieth century, this day has come to take on an additional significance that appeals even further to the Jewish soul and is universally relatable--the theme of remembrance. The American Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as similar tombs in countries around the world, reflects the concept that though we may not be able to identify soldiers’ remains, they should still be remembered. This was not the reality that Walt Whitman observed: “"the Bravest Soldier crumbles in mother earth, unburied and unknown." Similar to the efforts of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider, comes the modern spin on the 10th of Tevet. It has become Yom Hakkadish Haklali, a day dedicated to mourning and remembering the lives of people whose exact date of death is unknown to us. Jews around the world commemorate this day by remembering those who perished in the Holocaust. I do not have any close family to remember on this day. Still, the entire Jewish people is my family, and I stand with my Jewish brothers and sisters on the 10th of Tevet to remember. Even though many people today do not fast, it is still important to take time out to think about the significance of the day and to remember. For more information on 10th of Tevet and how others observe: Modern day fasts? http://www.myjewishlearning.com/blog/history-community/faster-faster-asara-btevet/ Exploring the juxtaposition between Jerusalem’s historical role as a city and contemporary reality. http://renaissance.jewishagency.org/2010/12/09/wanted-in-jerusalem-social-justice-10-tevet-events/ Western Wall and the fast day http://www.westernwallblog.com/7/asarah-betevet-the-10th-of-tevet-fast/ Should we observe 10th of Tevet today? http://www.halakhah.org/2010/12/asarah-btevet-10th-of-tevet.html?spref=tw Fasting on a Friday? http://mahrabu.blogspot.com/2010/12/in-tradition-of-mah-rabus-calendar.html
Posted by Sara Shapiro-Plevan
One of the mitzvot of Chanukah is pirsum hanes, which can be understood as “the advertisement of the miracle” of Chanukah. The advertisement becomes tangible as we place our chanukiyot into our windows, spreading the tiny lights of our candles outward into the dark night, and sharing the miracle of Chanukah with all who can see the flames. Pirsum hanes has always resonated deeply for me. Perhaps it dates to the year my cat jumped onto the table next to the window where we had the chanukiyah lit ,and knocked the candles into the filmy curtains, causing flames to shoot up to the ceiling. This was followed in rapid succession by shrieks, meows, a fire extinguisher in action and a visit from the fire department. Thank goodness no one, including my beloved cat, was injured. And thank goodness for electric chanukiyot, one of which was installed the very next Chanukah on that windowsill. That resonance is still strong, yet differently so. Then, I lived in a suburban neighborhood, on a street with other houses which had Christmas trees in the windows; my chanukiyah then was the lone one on the street. Now I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which is by definition very Jewy. I live in an apartment that faces other buildings, and I can see from the window where I will light my chanukiyah the windows of hundreds of other homes. Now, when I light my chanukiyah, my lights shine outward into a darkness lit by many other lights, joining together to form a light that is stronger because it joins the lights of others. I look out and know that my lights are not alone in recalling Chanukah's many miracles, and I am reminded that we are stronger than the sum of our candlelight, with stories and memories that grow and strengthen as they are shared. Not long ago, I took the bus down Fifth Avenue, one evening toward the end of Chanukah. As I looked out the window, I was shocked to see in so many windows chanukiyot ablaze. Block by block I saw them, going up the floors of residential buildings, hundreds of tiny lights, proclaiming the victory of the the weak over the strong. So many Jews, so much remembering. So many miracles. Advertising the story of the Maccabees is essential, but which story to advertise is a tough choice. I never like to start with the story of the miracle of the oil: it seems that a late addition to the story by the rabbis of the Talmud has obscured the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrians and their brave fight to own their identities as Jews, take back their Temple and rededicate that space to the service of God. Instead of bogging myself down in choosing which message, I prefer to focus on the medium, the advertisement of the miracle, pirsum hanes. Whether it's the miracle of light banishing darkness, the miracle of the victory of the few over the many, or some completely different miracle, the point is to share it. Advertise the miracle: • Get an electric menorah, available at chain drug or big box housewares stores, and put it in a window of your home that can be seen by your neighbors. • Light a stable chanukiyah in a safe place in your window where children and pets can't knock it over. Candles can be purchased at Judaica stores, many grocery stores, and the aforementioned chain drugstores and big box housewares stores. For good measure, put some tinfoil down below it. Luckily, most Chanukah candles burn within 30 minutes, so you don't have to stick around all night worrying the cat might take it down accidentally. • Fun with kids: make a candle counter. A felt (click here http://bit.ly/gnrnay) or a magnetic one (click here http://bit.ly/gOJRXQ) can be hung on the door of your home and will be visible as well to your neighbors and all who visit. • If you live in a house: Line your front walk with luminaria. Put a “shamash” up on a stair and add one each night. • Use Chanukah's emphasis on light to look at how energy is used in your home. Change your conventional lightbulbs to energy-efficient bulbs, or consider switching from standard electric/gas to wind and solar powered options provided by many electric companies. Try an energy audit and make some adjustments as you approach winter. • Share the light of your chanukiyah and the miracles of Chanukah with others by inviting friends and neighbors to join you for candlelighting, especially those who have not experienced Chanukah before. As we advertise the miracle of Chanukah this year, may our individual lights be strengthened and increased in the world as they join the lights of so many others, in celebration and in community.
Posted by Eileen Levinson
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