We are starting a special series to help librarians understand the basics of religious minorities they serve: holidays, food, customs, etc. We hope this series helps you plan events and programs more effectively and to welcome all in your community. If you would like to write a post for this series, please email editor Lizz Zitron at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
The autumn season might conjure up visions of pumpkin spice lattes and pencil bouquets to you, but to me it’s a time of frustration, worry, and sometimes hurt feelings. Since leaving the diverse bubble that is New York City, I’ve found many institutions and organizations lacking in their knowledge of non-Christian religions. Yes, there are exceptions. My last institution’s pastors were welcoming, knowledgeable advocates who made my professional life as a Jew in a predominantly Christian setting much easier. But more often than not I find myself being unintentionally excluded (but STILL, excluded) from events, programs, and important community meetings because they are scheduled when I’m celebrating my holidays. It’s frustrating, hurtful, and leaves me wondering what place there is for me. So while this post comes from a personal place, I know I am not alone. And I know so many of you want to make your libraries welcoming.
A professor recently pointed out to me that most members of the dominant religious culture (whether practicing or not, an important distinction) are not aware of what holidays are most important to religious minorities and how they are celebrated. If Hallmark were your only experience with Judaism, you might think Hannukah is our Christmas. It’s not. We don’t have a Christmas. We have our own holidays and I’d like to tell you about them to help you better make your outreach more accessible.
I won’t explain all holidays to you. Some good basic information is available at Judaism 101 which includes information about when work is forbidden, which can be a foreign concept when thinking about holidays. And Jewish holidays fall on the same day every year…on the Hebrew calendar, a lunar calendar which does not beautifully align with the Gregorian one. Aish offers this more detailed explanation of holidays which could also give you some wonderful ideas for thinking about displays and programs beyond Hannukah.
The Jewish New Year starts in the fall as Judaism is traditionally an agriculturally based religion. My friend The Kitchen Overlord explains it as akin to back-to-school season except with many days off. This automatically creates tension for many Jews because of the alignment with the education cycle. But like GI Joe said, knowing is half the battle. Here are a few major dates to know about:
- First, know that Jewish holidays start the night before. We call this the “erev.” Some calendars call it the “eve.” We start celebrating on the eve so hosting a community library meeting on the eve means many of us will not attend. Google calendar does not include the eves, so be sure to add the night before if you are using that feature to plan.
- Jewish New Year/Rosh Hashanah: one of our biggest holidays which falls in September or October. We celebrate the eve and then two days following. Some calendars refer to them as Rosh Hashanah 1 and 2. While some Jews, for varying reasons including poor employee time off policies, only celebrate the first day many celebrate both days.
- Yom Kippur: this is our holiest day which takes place 10 days after the New Year. It is a solemn day of fasting from sun down (the erev) to sun down. We are supposed to spend all day in synagogue repenting for our sins and thinking how we want our new year to be different. THIS is the holiday I wish more people knew about.
- Sukkot: this eight-day holiday takes place shortly after Yom Kippur and commemorates the Jews wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Work is forbidden on the first and second days. I grew up traditional, but we did not take off work. If you have a very observant Jewish population, be aware of this restriction. Incidentally, this holiday is a librarian’s DREAM! We build a temporary structure which we decorate then live in for 8 days. How fun is that?
- Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah fall at the end of Sukkot and work is also forbidden. Again, while I work on these days, more observant Jews do not. You can see how for many observant Jews the fall is fraught with tension and worry.
- Hannukah: not a major holiday despite what Hallmark product lines leave you to believe. It has an important history, good food, and gambling for children, but many of us get sick of being asked upon being discovered we are Jewish if we celebrate Hannukah. Although we appreciate the effort, we really do. Also, Jewish holidays are spelled in Hebrew so there is no definitive way to spell them in English.
- Passover: our spring holiday commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. You know it’s that time of year because THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is on TV. Observant Jews do not work on the first, second, seventh, and eight days. I would advise that it is most important, if you do not have a very observant population you serve, to note that most Jews celebrate this holiday on the eve and the night of the first day. This is when we retell the story of our enslavement and subsequent Exodus through a ritualized meal that takes place on two nights. Avoiding hosting event on these nights is much appreciated. Further, we do not eat leavened foods during Passover; we only eat food that is certified FOR PASSOVER, which is different from certified Kosher. Most grocery stores try so hard during Passover, but end up putting all Kosher food together in an end cap. The reality is we won’t eat much of that food during Passover because it’s not certified kosher for the holiday. It’s a thoughtful gesture that unfortunately is often implemented incorrectly.
A few final words to help you out. Observant Jews do not touch members of the opposite sex outside of their families. I never offer my hand to shake to any Observant Jew, male or female, unless they offer. And Jews have very strict traditions around pregnancy: we don’t reveal names until the baby is born and part of the world; we generally do not outfit a nursery before a baby is born and deemed healthy. Not all Jews practice these customs, but it’s good to know about this before planning a surprise shower for your pregnant Jewish co-worker or asking an obviously pregnant patron you know to be Jewish what baby names they have in mind. Good intentions are lovely, but knowing the potential impact is crucial.
Keep in mind there are many Jews who will take issue with this post and bring their own perspective. I hope they will comment, offer to write their own posts, and help the non-Jews in their lives become advocates on their behalf. My hope with this series is to empower librarians with practical knowledge beyond what a Google search can offer in order to better understand their patrons’ personal practices. I hope you will take this knowledge to your next planning meeting to ensure your outreach is truly accessible. Thanks for reading.