Not-So-Funny Valentines

Why does my mother's Jewish nursing home call it 'Heart Day'?

Confused about how to behave in interfaith situations--or how to act in your own religion's ceremonies? Send your questions to Arthur Magida, author of "How to Be a Perfect Stranger," at columnists@staff.beliefnet.com.

My mother, a Catholic, was recently admitted to a Jewish nursing home. It's the best facility in town and within easy walking distance of my house. I wanted to send her flowers, candies and cards for Valentine's Day, but the holiday isn't even celebrated at her nursing home. Instead, they call it "Heart Day." I don't know what that means - or if anything related to Valentine's Day is forbidden at the home.

Not to worry. "Heart Day," "Love Day," or any other moniker Valentine's Day may be hiding under at a non-Christian facility is still Valentine's Day. And you can give your mother all the flowers, candies, cards, kisses, and hugs you want without anyone looking askance.

Many Jews have a love-hate relationship with Valentine's Day. That's not to say they're not a loving people or they have problems with the mushiness, sappiness, and sometimes over-the-top sentimentality of February 14. Jews enjoy a good kiss or a good date or a swooning romance as much as the next man (or woman). But the origins of Valentine's Day have nothing to do with Judaism. And at least one massacre on Valentine's Day has not endeared it to Jews. There are several stories about the roots of Valentine's Day. The most common is that it's named after a third century priest who defied the orders of the Roman Emperor Claudius II outlawing marriage. Claudius wanted single men to become soldiers - not husbands. Valentine, believing that the decree violated the will of God, continued to secretly perform marriages. He was discovered, arrested, and executed. (More on legends surrounding St. Valentine.)

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Valentine exemplified love of God - and love of others: two sentiments with which Judaism would never quibble. Yet not only is Valentine's Day indisputably a Christian holiday that honors a Christian martyr, but several thousand Jews were martyred on the day named after him. In the mid-fourteenth century, tens of millions of Europeans were dying from the plague; rumors were rampant that Jews dreamed up the disease to poison Christians. In Strasbourg, a mob used this as an excuse in 1349 to exterminate local Jews to whom they owed massive debts. About 2,000 Jews were rounded up and burned to death on a platform in the local Jewish cemetery. (The genocide didn't save Strasbourg's Christians: 16,000 of them soon fell to the plague.)

With this history, Valentine's Day has much to overcome for Jews (although most don't know the holiday's origins or that anything untoward happened in Strasbourg in 1349). But don't let that stand between you and your mother. Or with giving her the biggest heart-shaped box of chocolates- if they're not against doctor's orders- that you can find in your local candy store.

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Arthur Magida
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