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Holiday Fatigue, or No Protestant Model?

I’m inclined to agree with Rabbi Grossman about the virtues of Sukkot relative to Yom Kippur. Too many American Jews are “twice-a-year Jews,” meaning they show up at synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Now granted, these are extremely important holidays, but they also give a skewed picture of what Judaism is, with their emphasis on sin and atonement. More than one rabbi has observed how different American Jews’ sense of Judaism would be if they came twice a year, on Simchat Torah and Purim. The sense of joy and celebration would certainly be a corrective to a stereotype of Jews as anxious and guilt-laden. Again, not that the High Holidays and their message aren’t important–but they need the other holidays of the annual cycle–not to mention the weekly celebration of Shabbat–to put them in their proper perspective.


Why does Sukkot get such short shrift? I think in part because American Jewish life operates against the background of Protestant life, where there are only a few major holidays. Easter is the holiest day of the year, so in Jewish terms, that’s either Yom Kippur (with Rosh Hashanah thrown in for good measure) or Passover (connected by season). Christmas is an important wintertime holiday, so that gives Jews Hanukkah–but that’s about it.

I think that many other Jewish holidays go unobserved because there isn’t a convenient Christian analogue (either thematically or seasonally) to “justify” them. This hypothesis is supported by a completely unscientific measure of the relative prominence of various Jewish holidays in the popular mind: seeing how many results you can get of Microsoft Office Clip Art designed for each holiday. The instructive results follow:


  • Chanukah – 111 – all out of proportion with its importance in the Jewish calendar!
  • Rosh Hashanah – 25
  • Yom Kippur – 14
  • Passover – 12
  • Purim – 8
  • Sukkot – 6
  • Shavuot – 3
  • Simchat Torah – 1

More seriously, my guess is that following Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “holiday fatigue” sets in, which sadly prevents many American Jews from getting to know and explore the joys of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.

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Howard Katz

posted October 5, 2006 at 3:06 pm

Theoretically, I’m inclined to agree that celebrating Sukkot and Simchat Torah would be better than R.H and Y.K. However, this formulation ignores the elephant in the room – the fact that in mainstream liberal Judaism(i.e. Conservative and Reform) no celebrations OR holidays are experienced as transformative. Sukkot and Simchat Torah are, as currently experienced in suburban American Judaism, just as lame as the “High Holy Days”. Simchat Torah in a typical suburban “Temple” is just more of the same – “let’s “expose” the kids to” – something they themselves are clueless about. American Jews are not “anxious and guilt-ridden” on R.H. and Yom Kippur – they’re bored to tears – and, in fact, crave some genuine spirituality. Unless and until Reform and Conservative Judaism figure out how to produce a genuinely transformative spiritual practice – nothing – not Sukkot, Purim or Simchat Torah – will help. The Jewish Renewal Movement seems to me to be the only group within liberal American Judaism that “gets” it. I just, in fact, spent a wonderful and truly transformative Yom Kippur with the P’nai Or Jewish Renewal community in Philadelphia. Outside of them, the only other group that provides a spiritually transformative practice is Orthodoxy, in its’ various manifestations – but their patriarchy and right-wing politics and culture make it unattractive to many(myself included).

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Jennie Coren

posted October 5, 2006 at 5:32 pm

Dear Rabbi Waxman: I’m a little upset that you would think that a harvest celebration trumps being one with G’d. And, why do Jews wear white on Yom Kippur? Jennie

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posted October 5, 2006 at 7:25 pm

IF I were asked to pick my favorite holiday, I would be sore pressed to answer! Each holiday with its own significance and meaning, I love them all. I spent years educating my coworkers (99.9% Christian) on the major holidays, then got lectured on showing up to work on Chanukah and having to explain it was a minor holiday and not a Jewish “xmas”. I decorated my work area for the appropriate holidays, too. Many of my coworkers commented on the number of holidays and on how “cool it would be to be Jewish”. (A gentle reminder of one G-d and still waiting for the Messiah stopped the discussion). Then there is shabbes; there is nothing like the experience of caretaking and no Shabbats for over 3 years to make one appreciate the day of rest and spiritual recharging! (I can even take a shabbes nap now, what a blessing.) In the same vein, as a caretaker, attendence at shul was not possible, nor was celebration of holidays so I feel “empty.” It will take time to recharge; what better way than in community? IMO, our shuls are what we make them and we find what we are looking for.(Sorry, think I am reacting to the negativity of the first post).

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Harvey Masef

posted October 5, 2006 at 10:35 pm

i am a victim of hOLIDAY BURNOUT IN SPADES! After about the third AL Chet, I fell like, well, all is forlorn! Ruminating of the practical chances of really changing, all is forelorn. Despite my affiation with Chabad — they wouldn’t know an abbreviated service if it bit them on the ass! Perhaps next year I’ll ask my rabbi to absolve me not just from fasting (I have diabetes and so decided to do just a protein drink fast) but from attending services as well. I am after all chronically depressed – yess I do see someone mostly to little or no avail — I am telling you burnout doesn’t begin to describe my feelings. Bring on the pork fried rice, bring on Jesus! I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but wow, what a guilt trip!

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Howard Katz

posted October 6, 2006 at 2:12 pm

Jennie, There are a couple of reasons – some of which contradict each other – for the wearing of white on Yom Kippur. One reason given for wearing “bigdei lavan(white garments)” is to emphasize the “purity” and joy we feel at being forgiven for our sins. However, in the Ashkenazic(Western and Eastern European traditions) a “kittel” is worn for an entirely different reason – a “kittel” is a traditional white burial shroud, and it is worn to remind us of our mortality and to turn to G-d while we can.

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posted October 6, 2006 at 2:42 pm

I think another reason for wearing white on Yom Kippur is to remind us to be humble before G-d and not to be thinking about vanity; thus the additional restrictions on bathing, perfumes, etc.

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posted October 8, 2006 at 1:31 am

I have always enjoyed the holidays – all of them and wish my children could do the same. Growing up Rosh Hashannah was enjoyable, although we were encouraged to give thought to what we wanted to do differently next year. Yom Kippur was solomn, with all the lights taped and the house dark, but it was a joy to wish everyone a good new year, and to have had plenty of time for introspection and internal housecleaning. The coffee and Kugel tasted positively divine and still do. Sukkoth and simchat Torah were fun!! I loved the time in shul and all the different foods. My graddad built a Sukkah and we all loved it. Jewish Thanksgiving is so much better than Canadian Thanksgiving where I grew up or even USA Thanksgiving. Chanukah was low key in our house – no decorations or gifts, but we loved the lights and singing as a family when we lit candles. Passover was celebrated with long Seders all in hebrew and a little tedious, but filled with love and we all enjoyed it, even having to wear dress up clothes to Seder. Purim was fun, sending gifts (mishloach manot)and visiting with the family. Shavuot was wonderful and we revelled in fabulous dairy dishes. What was not to Like? Today, its all a little harder. We are all over commited – scouts, ballet, baseball, football, band, forty hour a week jobs, everyone in the family on different schedules. It is hard to stay committed to one’s spouse let alone one’s faith. Our society as a whole does not give us leeway for our holidays. PTA meetings, band dinners etc are all planned with out regard to our calendar. How can we deal with that and four weeks of holidays? I will persevere because I love it all and it does wonderful things for me. I notice it does wonderful things for my little four yr old granddaughter, who informed me this am

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posted October 8, 2006 at 1:32 am

Her comment was “I love going to synagogue!!”

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