The last month of 2019 was a tough one for Jews worldwide as we witnessed a wave of anti-Semitic attacks. One thing that kept me going was lighting the Hanukkah candles each night and feeling connected to other Jews who were boldly choosing to take pride in our identities in the face of hate. Plus, stuffing one’s face with fried food like latkes and sufganiyot is a time-tested way to deal with Jewish fear of annihilation: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”
But Hanukkah is over, and Passover feels like an eternity from now — that’s a long time to keep the fire burning, so to speak. And sure, we can all make more of a habit of celebrating Shabbat, but when something happens every week it’s easy to take it for granted.
So for those wanting to set a Jew Year’s Resolution for 2020, I want to offer up some less-touted holidays that deserve a lot more love and celebration.
I’m going to be honest: The idea of celebrating most of these holidays as an adult would have been unthinkable to me until about five years ago. But it’s been really empowering to go beyond what I was given in Hebrew school and junior congregation. I was probably not alone in being frustrated about how religious traditions are often rooted in old-fashioned ways of thinking about gender and other progressive issues I care about a great deal. All of it can seem kind of impenetrable, and I stayed away from most mainstream Jewish life for about a decade after high school.
What has inspired me to reengage is encountering badass Jewish innovators and communities pushing our traditions forward — the boundary-pushing feminist rabbis and priestesses, queer talmudists, and rogue artist-activists taking the raw material of our often problematic tradition, breaking down the barriers to learning, and building a Judaism where everyone deserves to be celebrated and represented.
This isn’t a comprehensive list of holidays to be sure, but hopefully it will pique your interest and delve deeper into the Jewish calendar.
Tu Bishvat (February 9, 2020)
Hate matzah but love that Passover mandates you to drink four glasses of wine to celebrate it properly? Let me introduce you to Tu Bishvat, the “Birthday of the Trees” you might remember from Hebrew school as the time when you were given a cup of dried fruit and some carob chips (if you weren’t raised by health nuts in the ‘80s and ‘90s and don’t know what carob is… consider yourself blessed).
I first participated in a Tu Bishvat seder in Jerusalem five years ago — yes in addition to four cups of wine, Tu Bishvat also includes a seder — and was charmed and blown away. Instead of matzah, parsley, haroset, egg, and horseradish, the foods you celebrate at this seder involve a variety of fresh fruit that represent different levels of spiritual oneness with the universe.
If this sounds like some new-agey stuff… it absolutely is. Tu Bishvat was developed by a bunch of Kabbalistic hippies in the mountains of Tzevat in the 16th century. Like Hanukkah, this is very much a post-Biblical holiday that Jews over the centuries have used to uplift ideas relevant to their current age, from Zionist tree-planting to climate change. Given the holiday’s trippy roots, I see no reason why you couldn’t bring edibles into the equation.
Purim (March 9, 2020)
Of all of the holidays on this list, Purim is probably the one that has been most commonly reclaimed by Jewish adults. It’s almost impossible to not get behind the story of badass Queen Esther, who risks everything to save the Jews of Persia from genocide. With the costumes, hamantaschen, and the commandment from the Talmud that one should drink so much that they can no longer distinguish Haman (the villain) from Mordecai (one of the heroes), Purim has all the elements of a great party.
But beyond the excuse to get down for a night that’s akin to Mardi Gras-meets-Halloween, Purim has a lot to offer our current moment. With Esther and the king’s first wife, Vashti, you have two extremely complex heroines pushing up against sexist beauty standards and limited agency that are sadly relevant in the #MeToo era. And it’s powerful to watch Esther use her privilege to help others in her community who are more vulnerable.
Shavuot (May 28, 2020)
I am actually really bitter that no one ever told me how great this holiday was until I was an adult. A culmination of the 49-day Omer period after Passover, Shavuot celebrates when Moses and the Israelites received the Ten Commandments. As a kid, I vaguely knew it had something to do with eating cheesecake (because Israel was supposed to be the land of milk and honey), but because I was raised by vegans (carob chips, remember?) and it usually fell during the time of year when Hebrew school was done for the summer, it was never a high priority growing up.
But a few years ago I randomly decided to check out the late night Shavuot nerd fest at the 14th Street Y in New York City and immediately fell in love with the holiday. In addition to eating cheesecake (and other dairy deliciousness), Shavuot is observed by spending all night delving deeply into Jewish texts until the sun comes up. As someone who attended midnight parties for three Harry Potter volumes in my high school and college careers, I am personally offended no one thought that book bacchanal Shavuot would be my jam.
Like Tu Bishvat, Shavuot celebrations trace their roots to those hippie Kabbalists, and it is a holiday that lends itself to a lot of creative innovation and orgiastic partying. Because the celebration goes all night, there’s room for a wide variety of learning — I’ve been to Shavuot workshops that involve everything from ice cream-making to discussions about disability rights, Jews of color representation, and queer midrash in the Biblical story of Joseph. The traditional text for Shavuot is the Book of Ruth, about a Jew by choice struggling to be accepted by her adopted community, and that is pretty damn relevant.
But if you aren’t sold yet, Jenny Singer made the ultimate case with a headline that reads: “Shavuot is the Jewish Festival of Sex, Booze, and Cheese. Let’s Rage.”
Simchat Torah (October 10, 2020)
It’s a Torah rave. Simple as that.
On Simchat Torah, we get to end of the Torah scroll with the Book of Deuteronomy, and celebrate restarting the cycle with Genesis. You pull all of the Torah scrolls out of the ark and dance with them around the synagogue. Most synagogues unroll an entire Torah and that’s a pretty amazing sight to see if you’ve never witnessed it. In New York every year there’s a giant Simchat Torah Across Brooklyn celebration where people take their Torah partying into the streets. In a time when Jews are being increasingly made to feel afraid, I can think of no better antidote than to celebrate our traditions with radical joy.
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