Book review: New approaches to holiday joy


When I was in rabbinical school, we were required to buy two books on the Jewish holidays: "The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary" by Michael Strassfeld and "Seasons of Our Joy: A Modern Guide to the Jewish Holidays" by Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow. Why the second book when the Strassfeld work contained all the factual information we needed to know? Because Waskow took a different approach: He sought to identify new and meaningful ways to appreciate and observe the holidays. In order to introduce his work to a new generation, The Jewish Publication Society has reprinted the original version (which was first published in 1982) with a new afterward by the author.

Parts of "Seasons of Our Joy" are no different from other books about the Jewish holidays. It, too, features information about the practical aspects of the day: the specific prayers and Torah readings, traditional food customs and observances, etc. However, Waskow is also interested in the mood of the day, focusing on how the observance of the holiday has affected the Jewish people throughout time. He looks at each holiday’s history, showing how its development shaped its rituals, in addition to offering new rituals to enhance the experience. His focus comes from his involvement in the Jewish renewal movement of the 1970s; he notes that "from the standpoint of Jewish renewal, the past, the present, and the future are all important. We must learn from the history of the holy days how Jews have renewed Judaism over and over in the past. We must learn from the present and its glimmerings of the future how we might go about renewing Jewish life today." Waskow’s new approaches are the highlight of his book.

Sometimes he has ideas for new actions and rituals. For example, Waskow outlines several suggestions for Purim activities. To introduce them, he explains that Purim teaches us that "power is funny, and those who hold power are ridiculous. The first stage of liberation is that we can laugh at them." He does also note that power is "profound," and that learning to laugh helps us take our freedom seriously. Among his suggestions are opening a center for battered women and calling it the House of Vashti; holding a demonstration against a form of oppression, but using costume and street theater to ridicule the oppressor; and organizing a festival of Jewish humor, featuring comedians, dance and theater.

For those who count the omer, Waskow shows how to connect the ritual to nature and tzedakah. Part of his focus is on learning: people could learn about a new flower each week (which connects the holiday to the spring season in which it occurs) or spend time with someone new, learning about each other. His idea for tzedakah is connected to the number of days of the holiday. He suggests giving a different amount each day, increasing from 25 cents a night the first week, to 50 cents the second, to 75 cents the third, etc. The total amount given during the seven weeks will equal $49, which is the same amount of time the omer is counted.

Suggestions for Chanukah take a different tack. Waskow is interested in the conflict between two different ways of approaching the holiday: whether it should be a celebration of a miracle (the rabbinic spiritual model) or a celebration of a military struggle against an oppressor (the Maccabee political model). Although this conflict began in ancient times, the author believes it still affects modern Jews. He suggests that deciding between the two approaches is unnecessary: for him, "the real conflict is not between... the spiritual and the political, but between apathy and hope, between a blind surrendering to darkness and an acting to light up new pathways." What he seeks is for readers to reconcile the spiritual and political models, to realize that both impulses occur in all of us. The holiday could then become "a resource to help us experience our moments of darkness whenever they occur throughout the year – and stroke new sparks."

In his new afterward, Waskow offers additional suggestions based on the changes that have occurred in Judaism since his book first appeared. He notes the different variations for the opening lines of traditional blessings, suggesting new metaphors so that God will no longer be referred to as a king or a lord. In addition, he adds more political approaches to the holidays, for example, connecting Sukkot to the Occupy Movement and Tisha B’Av to the Green Movement. "Jewish Approaches to American Holidays" offers Jewish ways to celebrate American holidays, including having shofar players play "Auld Lang Syne" for the secular New Year and reading from the Torah (Deuteronomy, about the limits to a king’s power) on the Fourth of July.

Waskow is now best known for his work with The Shalom Center as a political and environmental activist, but "Seasons of Joy" shows these interests are not new. Although many of his suggestions may seem mainstream, some were quite controversial when his book was first published. The fact that this is no longer true shows how much influence Waskow has had on contemporary Judaism.