My musings on the mainstream media and culture.

Archive for the category “Religion”

Merry Capitalismas, or, What if They Sold Christmas Decorations All Year Long?

It's Christmas at Kohl's!

It’s Christmas at Kohl’s!

Ho ho ho! It’s Christmas at Kohl’s! Never mind that I took this picture on September 14. Merry Christmas to all, or at least, Merry Capitalismas!

As a culture, pretty much everyone complains that ever year, Christmas decorations appear earlier and earlier in stores. All are in agreement, from the religious Christian to the Christmas-avoiding atheist to the hardcore Black Friday enthusiast to the last-minute shopper. September 14 is too early for a Santa Claus display. If we’re still wearing shorts, and we’re in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s not time for Christmas!

But this makes me think. Maybe it’s a lost cause. In the hypercapitalistic U.S.A., nothing sells better than Christmas. Maybe we have no choice but to embrace a day when Kohl’s has Christmas on display 365 days per year. I mean, hey, nobody knows for sure when Jesus was really born, right? In fact, to save merchandisers’ time, I’d like to offer some suggestions for year-round Christmas ideas.

Christmas on Halloween

Think of all the costume possibilities. Santa, reindeer, wise men, elves, Mrs. Claus. (Of course, there would have to be Sexy Elves and sexy Mrs. Claus, although probably not sexy Wise Men.) Also, the Halloween candy possibilities would multiply. Wouldn’t it be fun to hand out candy canes to trick or treaters?

Christmas on the 4th of July

Santa is already wearing red. He could just as easily wear red, white, and blue, and hand out patriotic candy canes. Let freedom ring—and jingle!

Christmas on Easter

Kind of confusing from a spiritual point of view. But genius from a candy point of view. Christmas Peeps! Christmas jelly beans!

Christmas on Valentine’s Day

It would be easy to add green to red heart-shaped boxes of candy. And mistletoe sales would go through the roof.  Also, couples could have fun playing “naughty or nice” and “sit on Santa’s lap.”

Christmas on Groundhog Day

Who needs a silly groundhog when you have beloved Rudolph? If Rudolph sees his shadow, it’s six more weeks of winter. On second thought, maybe we should choose one of the reindeer without a light-up nose for this task.

Christmas on New Year’s

Now that Dick Clark has passed away, who better to host the Times Square ball drop than Santa? And on New Year’s Day, what better way to start off the New Year than with sales for next Christmas?

Christmas on Leap Day

What’s better than Christmas 365 days of the year? Christmas 366 days of the year!

Christmas on Passover

Even more confusing from a spiritual point of view. But they have Kosher-for-Passover everything these days, so why not a Kosher-for-Passover candy cane?  Why not four glasses of egg nog instead of four glasses of wine? And while children leave a cup out for Elijah, they could also leave Kosher macaroons for Santa.

Christmas on Christmas

What better day to start selling next year’s Christmas merchandise than on this year’s Christmas? In fact, the stores could do one better and start selling stuff for Christmas three years from now on Christmas. Or five years from now. Heck, you could finish your Christmas 2023 shopping by December 28 of this year.

Please feel free to add your merchandising ideas below!

Thanks to Kathryn Shanahan for inspiring this blog post!

Jill Duggar and the #YesAllWomen Hashtag: Why Christian Patriarchs Don’t Own Women’s Bodies Either


This week, two seemingly unrelated incidents happened in the world of female sexuality and the media.

On May 23, 2014, a 22-year-old man named Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California. According to his autobiographic manifesto, Rodger’s killing spree was motivated by the fact that women had been rejecting him sexually. It seems that he literally felt entitled to access to the bodies of these women, a belief that was reinforced by the”men’s rights activism” rhetoric he was reading.

In response to Rodger’s killing, women all over the world started tweeting their own experiences under the #YesAllWomen hashtag. Their point: Rodger’s killing wasn’t the case of an isolated nut job. Women everywhere encounter men who think that they are entitled to access to women’s bodies. Here are just a few examples of the many, many tweets:



Meanwhile, on 19 Kids and Counting, a small act of rebellion was committed by Jill Duggar, the 22-year-old daughter in this very public right-wing Christian family. You see, at the time of filming, Jill Duggar was courting a young man named Derick Dillard.  (They are now engaged.) In the Duggar family, daughters are not “allowed” any physical contact with their suitors other than a brief side hug.  Frontal hugs are off limits. Couples are “allowed” to hold hands after their engagement, and are “allowed” to kiss for the first time at their wedding ceremony.

And yet, on 19 Kids and Counting, there was a small, but perhaps not entirely insignificant, act of rebellion. Derick returned from a long trip abroad, and Jill was there to greet him at the airport with her entire family. Derick and Jill eagerly approached each other from opposite sides of the security barrier. Jill ran a little too far into the security zone, and the alarm went off.  This turned out to be a unusual moment of spontaneous reality TV gold, because as the buzzers went off, Derick and Jill dove in for an actual frontal contact hug. Her parents were none too happy.

Now, please let me get this straight. There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to abstain from sex, kissing, or anything else before marriage.  The #YesAllWomen tweeters would most certainly agree.  A man is not entitled to any physical contact with a woman that she does not want to share, whether those reasons have to do with her religious beliefs or something else.  A woman’s body belongs to no one but her own self.

But that’s what’s so disturbing about 19 Kids and Counting (and about the Quiverfull movement they belong to and other similar movement) is that the message is not that women own their own bodies and control their own sexualities. The message is that their fathers control their daughters’ sexuality until these daughters are “given away” to their husbands, who then take control.

Think I’m exaggerating? The degree to which the Duggars, and especially Jim Bob, exercise control over their daughters’ dating experiences is comprehensive. Jim Bob must approve all “courtship” partners for his adult daughters. No, we’re not talking about a dad setting limits on who his 15-year-old daughter can date. We’re talking about 22-year-old daughters needing permission. Once a daughter is dating, or even engaged, Duggar girls are never allowed to be alone with their boyfriends. Ever. They always have to have a parent or another sibling along as a “chaperone” to make sure that no physical contact outside of a side hug ever occurs.  These girls are not even allowed to have private phone conversations or texts with their boyfriends. To promote “accountability,” the entire Duggar family has access to the texts exchanged between Jill and Derick.

Now, you might ask, isn’t this a choice that Jill is making actively?  She is indeed an adult, and if she wants to kiss a boy before marriage or send private texts, what’s stopping her from doing so?

This is absolutely correct, technically. However, the cost of a Duggar child going against the teachings of their parents, and against the entire community to which they’ve been exposed, is enormous. The Duggars have gone through great pains to make sure their children have limited exposure to any ideas outside their own — including to the more mainstream Christian lifestyle choices that the majority of American Christians make.  They are all homeschooled.  None of the adult children have left the house to go to college or to get a job, except for the oldest boy, who’s married.  The family only socializes with other families with very similar values. The Internet is censored to about 70 websites for the younger children and for the adult children, which means no access to “subversive” ideas. So yes, Jill Duggar could leave the house and go to college and kiss boys and even wear pants (which the Duggar girls do not), but the Duggars have gone through great pains to make this level of free will enormously painful and unlikely.

And the children — including the adult children — rarely leave the house alone. There’s no, “Mom, I’m going to the mall with Katie.” The Duggars always bring a sibling along to make sure they act in accordance with their parents’ wishes. A few years ago, oldest daughter Jana left alone to speak at a retreat for young Christian women, and her parents made a big deal about how proud they were to send their daughter off alone into the world for the first time.  Jana was 22.

I want to emphasize that there is nothing wrong with parents teaching their daughters about sexual morality, and that there is nothing wrong with teaching the belief that sex (or even kissing) should be reserved for marriage. Every parent teaches their children about morality, myself included, and we all hope these lessons will stick. And when our children are growing up, we can indeed impose rules about things like dating.  I’ve already had a conversation with my eight-year-old involving a skimpy purple bikini. She was none to happy with me when I refused to buy her the bikini.

But when our daughters grow up, they can wear whatever purple bikinis they want, and they can make their own decisions about sexual morality because they are the owners of their own bodies.  And yet this is exactly what Jim Bob Duggar, and others in the Christian patriarchy movement, are trying to prevent. Just look at the recent popularity of the Purity Ball, a ceremony in which an adolescent girl literally “entrusts her purity” to her father, who is tasked with protecting it until she is married.

Attempting to control women’s bodies and women’s sexuality is wrong — whether we’re talking about a rapist at a frat party or a father who goes through great length to control his adult daughters’ sexual choices. In this way, Jim Bob Duggar isn’t all that different from Elliot Rodger. Eliot believed that he was entitled to make decisions about how women expressed their sexuality. Jim Bob feels the same way about his daughters.

Coming out as a Humanistic Jew

My daughter, reading the Four Questions at a community Passover seder at my Humanistic Jewish synagogue.

My daughter, reading the Four Questions at a community Passover seder at my Humanistic Jewish synagogue.

I am a Humanistic Jew.

Not everyone knows what that means. When asked what kind of Jew I am, people generally expect me to say I’m Reform or Conservative. My answer is less common, and according to some, more controversial.

I am a Humanistic Jew. In a nutshell, this means that I identify culturally as being a part of the Jewish people, and that I am proud to be a part of Jewish history. I am also an agnostic, so I do not have Jewish religious beliefs.

Here’s how the Society for Humanistic Judaism describes it:


So why do I feel the need to come out as a Humanistic Jew? Well, not all Jews (or Gentiles) see this as a legitimate identity — and, frankly, I personally am someone who worries too much about what others think of me. When I belonged briefly to a Reform synagogue, I didn’t hesitate to answer the question, “What synagogue do you belong to?” In fact, it made me feel like part of the “club” to have a conventional answer. Unfortunately, belonging to that “club” made me feel like a hypocrite because of my lack of religious beliefs. I felt like I was being disrespectful to the religious people in the congregation.

The Humanorah, a symbol of Humanistic Judaism

The Humanorah, a symbol of Humanistic Judaism

So, happily, I found a new “club” when my family and I joined Or Emet, the local Humanistic Jewish congregation. It feels wonderful to have a warm, inviting place where I can unapologetically be who I am, a Humanistic Jew. But I still feel nervous about telling some people about Or Emet.  Recently, when I was chatting with a Jewish woman by the pool during our daughters’ swim lessons, she told me that she belongs to a Conservative synagogue and sends her daughter to a Jewish day school. She asked me if we belonged to a synagogue. I felt nervous sharing this information with someone who was obviously more traditional than me, but since this particular stranger had just spent half an hour oversharing juicy information about her ex-husband with me, I figured what the heck? Happily, she didn’t seem phased.

Others, however, are not okay with the concept that Judaism can be seen as an ethnicity and culture separate from religious beliefs.  For some people, this is because they are religious Jews. For others, regardless of their beliefs, it’s about a genuine fear that we’re all going to become assimilated and forget about who we are. There are only about 14 million Jews worldwide, and in case you’ve been paying attention to history, you know there’s been some effort made to both assimilate us into Christianity and to annihilate us. Many Jews are alarmed by a recent Pew Research Study of Jewish Americans that shows that 62 percent of Jews define Judasim is being primarily about ancestry and culture, and that almost a third of millennial generation Jews define themselves as Jewish and secular.

I can understand the fear of Jews dying out. I fear this too.  But I see Humanistic Judaism (and other alternative movements, like Reconstructionist Judaism) as part of the answer. Humanistic Judaism is one possible space where that third of millennial Jews can go to be Jewish and still be secular. Both Reform and Conservative Judaism evolved to meet the changing needs of American Jews who had immigrated from the Old World. Humanistic Judaism can fill in a similar need, while still promoting Jewish identity.

Some may wonder why it’s so important to me to retain my Jewish identity if I don’t have Jewish religious beliefs. Part of it is that like many humans, I feel a powerful connection to my ancestry and history. Religion is not a mandatory part of that type of connection. After all, would you tell an African-American that she couldn’t be African-American unless she was Christian?  Of course not. Christianity has been an integral part of the African-American experience, but it’s by no means the only part, and someone isn’t “fired” from being black if she professes agnosticism. I feel the same way about being Jewish.

Like many Jews, the connection I feel to my heritage was reinforced when I travelled to Israel as a young adult. I was sitting on a bus on the way to Jerusalem and felt overcome by emotion. I though about the many generations of Jews who have ended their Passover seders with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” For years, this was an unrealizable dream, and yet here I was. When I arrived at the Wailing Wall, I did what many Jews do: I wrote a prayer on a piece of paper and inserted it into the cracks of the wall.  One of my best friends, who is Jewish, was about to have her first child, so I wrote a prayer for her and her baby.  Despite my agnosticism, I am getting choked up just writing about this moment. This was a moment in my life when I felt deeply in touch with my place in the human experience.

And that’s the thing about Humanistic Judaism that probably has the most meaning to me — it’s about feeling proud and connected to my place in the beautiful, tragic, and complex story of humanity as a Jew. On my trip to Israel, I visited the Diaspora Museum, a museum that documents the detailed story of the Jews throughout history. After spending hours in the exhibits tracing Jews throughout the world, I finally came across the exhibit about American Jews. There was a U.S. map with push pins, and a sign explaining that each push pin was inserted into an American community with a significant Jewish population.  My first thought was that the Minneapolis-St. Paul area probably didn’t have a large enough Jewish population to warrant a push pin. But then I looked, and I was wrong. And there was another moment when I felt deeply connected with my place in human history, in Jewish human history. There I was! There was my push pin!

Of course, one part of my understanding of myself in the human Jewish story is the Holocaust. Like many other American Jews, my great-grandmother was murdered by the Nazis. In fact, there’s a photo of Bessarabian Jews in a Nazi ghetto on Wikipedia, and I actually think the woman on the left hand side might be my great-grandmother. Even if she’s not, my place in history is now digitized.  My daughter has started asking me questions about the Holocaust, and it’s painful to answer these questions, but I always tell her, “This is one reason why we can never forget we’re Jews.”

And when I tell my daughter about the Holocaust and its place in our Jewish human history, I want her to remember not just victimization but also heroes. Like Boris. My father doesn’t talk about his childhood as a first-generation American Jew very much, but after we saw Schindler’s List, he told me about his father’s friend Boris. After Boris escaped from a concentration camp, he spent the rest of the war running back into Nazi territory and smuggling out children. Later in his life, Boris suffered from tremendous anxiety attacks and hid under tables, and my grandfather was the only one who could coax him back to reality. Boris was a hero.  And so was Liviu Lebrescu, a Holocaust survivor and a Romanian Jew who was born not too far from where my grandparents were born. Lebrescu was a professor at Virginia Tech and was in his classroom the day in 2007 (on Holocaust Remembrance Day) when a deranged student started slaughtering people with a machine gun. Professor Lebrescu died as he barricaded the door with his body, and all but one of his students escaped through the window.  These stories of Jewish heroism fill me with pride, as does the tradition of the Jewish labor organizer and the many Jewish politicians who have fought for social justice, like Paul Wellstone.

I know that for many Jews, this sense of connection comes from going to a temple and participating traditional prayers. My own experiences do not exclude this. A few weeks ago,my great-uncle Morrie died and I attended services for him at a Reform temple. Most of the people in the sanctuary were older, probably in their eighties at least. The rabbi told a humorous anecdote about Morrie’s poker games and about how the expectation back then was that the wife would offer the poker group a big tray of food around 11:00 pm.  There was a very old couple sitting in front of us, and when the rabbi told this story they beamed at each other spontaneously. I felt honored to witness this brief, loving moment in the life of these old strangers. And I felt connected. I understand that the experiences of the Jews in that sanctuary have probably been very different than mine, and I felt honored to be in the sanctuary with them, sharing their traditions.

So there you have it. I am a Humanistic Jew. I hope that no one will read this and think that I disapprove of Jews who are more traditional and who have religious beliefs. That is not the case, just as I don’t disapprove of religious people who are not Jewish. I only hope that traditional Jews will share the same feeling of inclusion about me. For many years I felt lost in the Jewish community, eager to find a way to connect, but feeling shut out because the only way I could see in was through beliefs I didn’t share. I hope that traditional Jews who read this don’t reject me as an outsider, and that they will see something of themselves in my stories of feeling connected to the human Jewish story.

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