Last year I discussed the Jewish festival of Hannukah, which does fall over Christmas this year (it started last night). This year I’ll introduce you to some Jewish Christmas traditions.
The earliest Christmas tradition dates back to before the birth of Jesus. The date of Christmas is based not on the actual date of his birth, which is unknown but must have happened in the summer (Huey Freeman can explain it better than I can), but on the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a gift-giving holiday which ended around the 23-rd-25th, depending on when the Romans reset their calendar, which they often did. In the early Greco-Roman period, Jews were forbidden from doing business with gentiles around their holidays, specifically the three days before and the three days after, because anything sold to them might be used in the worship of idols. Tractate Avodah Zorah (“idol worship”) in the Mishnah deals with these laws, and among the Roman holidays it notes as being significant, Saturnalia appears. (Avodah Zorah 1:3) These laws no longer apply today.
1. Eating Chinese food. The custom actually started with less religious Jews but has now caught on in the religious community. Jews who eat at non-kosher restaurants would go out on Christmas, only to discover all the restaurants were closed except the Chinese ones, which they would then patronize. Today this very non-serious custom is popular among all Jews in America, because Chinese food is awesome (kosher restaurants are usually open unless the staff isn’t Jewish and needs to take off). Continue reading →
Pride and Prejudice has been translated into Hebrew a couple times. I don’t know which version I have; it was the one available last time I was in a bookshop in Israel from Keter Publishing. My Hebrew actually isn’t too good, but I’m not racing to read it anyway. It’s better in the original.
Hebrew itself has an interesting history. It stopped being a spoken language around 586 BCE, with the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile. Jews picked up the administrative language of Aramaic, and brought it back with them, including its character set, which replaced the old character set. So if you were able to read Hebrew and you found the two tablets with the Ten Commandments, you wouldn’t be able to read them, because that character set has gone out of use. Hebrew remained the written language of the Jews, and has been used almost universally as the language of important religious documents until the present day, with the exclusion of the Gemara, which is in Talmudic Aramaic, a language very similar to Hebrew, and some other outliers in Yiddish or Ladino.
In the 1930′s, Zionists in Palestine realized that Jews needed a spoken language but were coming from too many different places to decide, so they decided to resurrect Hebrew and essentially built the language from the ground up, using biblical Hebrew words but not the grammar. Modern Hebrew only has three tenses – past, present, and future.
You get into trouble bringing in languages like English. English has been spoken for a long time, has a bigger lexicon, and has far more tenses. There’s inevitably going to be some simplification to Jane Austen’s particularly complex sentences.
There are also issues with the alphabet. Hebrew doesn’t have the “G” as in “George” or “Bingley,” so Hebrew puts the G letter in (Gimmel) and adds what’s called a “chopchick” – a little dash next to the letter – to indicate, “It’s that G we don’t have in Hebrew.” On the other hand, English needs two letters for the “tz” sound in Fitzwilliam, while Hebrew only needs one (Tsemach).
Proper nouns also get special treatment. Hebrew doesn’t have any vowels, only consonants, with the pronunciation implied. We actually have a system of vowels, which are added as dots and dashes above and below the letters to indicate which way to pronounce them, but modern Hebrew doesn’t like to use that system. When a book that’s been translated hits a proper noun with an un-guessable pronunciation, it’ll stick in the vowels for that word to indicate, “Here’s a name you won’t otherwise know how to pronounce.”
Translations also vary, though for Pride and Prejudice they seem to be standard on the title. My movie poster from 2005, my DVD set from the BBC miniseries, and my book all translate the title the same way: “Geova veh da’a gehdomah.” If you think that looks a bit long, you’re right – because Hebrew doesn’t have a word for prejudice (believe it or not), so it has to use a phrase instead.
The literal translation of title is, “Pride and a Preconceived Notion.”
So far there’s no dub of the movie or the miniseries, though there is a modern miniseries they did a few years ago if you really want to watch Pride and Prejudice in Hebrew, which I haven’t seen. Most adult movies aren’t dubbed because most Israelis speak English or are willing to put up with subtitles. Hebrew is also far more succint and meant to be read and spoken fast, so if they did dub it, the dubber would probably be done speaking and the English Darcy on the screen would still be talking. On the other hand, Israelis are pretty used to this, too.
Finishing our litany of Jewish holidays are the last two, which begin Wednesday night.
Shmini Atzeret is a holiday we made up. I kid you not. Or, it’s not really clear which was made up first – Simhat Torah or Shmini Atzeret. What we do know is, Shmini Atzeret technically doesn’t exist as a holiday in Israel.
It has to do with the fact that holidays in Israel are generally one day, and in Galut (exile), 2 days. This custom got started at a time when most Jews lived West of the land of Israel (circa 2500 years ago) but wanted to cover the whole day as it occurred in Israel exactly but didn’t have watches or time zones, so they spread the holidays over two days. During most holidays we simply do the liturgy twice – have two Passover seders, etc – but for whatever reason the Rabbis decided to split the various things that occur on that day in the Jewish calendar over two separate days. So two holidays were created. Of the two of them, Shmini Atzeret is far lamer but that’s just because Simhat Torah is awesome and you can’t compare them.
On Shmini Atzeret we leave the sukkah, which we’ve been eating in for a week, and we begin to add the prayers for rain to our various daily prayers. The prayer for rain is only said from the end of Sukkot until Passover, a six-month period that covers the rainy season in Israel, because our spiritual calendars still focus on the Holy Land, not the land we’re necessarily living in. The only other custom for Shmini Atzeret I can think of is we take the willow or mrytle branches from our lulavs and beat them against a chair or a bench to beat out the last of our sins, because even though G-d made the decision about the Book of Life back on Rosh Hashanah, and wrote it down on Yom Kippur, He can still repoen the book and make changes as late as the day after Sukkot. Continue reading →
Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles as it’s known in Christian literature, is a major holiday dating back to biblical times. It’s the only holiday other than Passover that lasts for 7 days, though fortunately only the first two days are yom tovs – days where we can’t use electricity or travel or work blah blah blah. The intermediary days are known as Hol Moed, when we can do ordinary things with certain holiday restrictions. In Israel it’s a national vacation week, and a lot of people do some traveling and the like. The major Israeli sci-fi convention, Icon, occurres during Hol Moed of Sukkot.
The major bit about Sukkot, around which the holiday revolves, is the building of and eating in a sukkah, which is a kind of hut that Jews must eat in the whole week to remind of us of the mobile life we had when we wandered for forty years in the desert of Sinai, relying on G-d’s decision not to have it rain that day and get it wet. The laws of building a sukkah are very specific, but here are the key points:
1. Though it may touch other buildings, it must be a free-standing structure without foundation or support from other structures.
2. It must be at least 8 feet tall – probably more, come to think of it – and have at least 3 sides.
3. Though the walls of the sukka may be constructed of anything sturdy, the roof must be covered in skath, which are materials like palm leaves, branches, or bamboo, so that you can see the stars when you look up and are exposed to the elements.
4. The sukkah must not be under any other structure, such as another building or trees, so the sky view is not blocked. If you live in an apartment in a city, this is by far the most frustrating law, because you have to see if the city will let you build a sukkah in your courtyard, on your roof, or in some cases, on the sidewalk in front of your building. Communal sukkahs are common here in NYC, and my apartment is fortunate enough to have one, but if you live in a high rise and you have to go to eat in the sukkah at the local synagogue and you can’t use the elevator on Yom Tov and Shabbat, it’s very annoying. My parents in New Jersey build theirs on their porch; most people put them in the driveway or on their lawn.
5. The sukkah must be constructed between Yom Kippur and the start of Sukkot, which is a 4 day window. After the holiday it is taken down and the materials saved for next year.
Laws and Customs of Sukkot
1. Men must eat all of their meals in the sukkah. Some men say that this only applies to meals that have bread, which qualifies it in Rabbinic terms as a meal, and they will just avoid bread when they don’t want to eat in the sukkah. Some men are strict, and eat everything in the sukkah. Women are not obligated to eat in the sukkah because women are not obligated to time-bound mitzvot, but they often do for holiday meals because everyone else is. This week makes me really happy to be a woman, because I can be really lazy if it’s chilly outside or I’m just trying to eat my breakfast without a whole mishigas of taking everything outside.
2. Both men and women are exempt from eating in the sukkah if it is too cold or raining. I just assume my Russian ancestors never ate in their sukkah, though they certainly did construct one.
3. Many people have a custom (which is different from a law) to sleep in the sukkah. This custom is far more popular in places where it’s still warm in October. I’ve never slept in a sukkah.
4. It is important, but not a law, to decorate the inside of the sukkah. Most people put up fruits (plastic, to avoid bees) and in America, dried corn cobs, because Sukkot is a harvest time holiday. We also use streamers, Christmas lights, posters, and other things that will get totally destroyed when it rains because we are stupid.
5. Kosher restaurants, if they can, will often put up sukkahs so that people can eat in the restaurants on Hal Moed (when we can spend money). In Israel, even Burger King had a rudimentary sukkah. Other places where Jews stay – hospitals, hotels – will often put up a communal sukkah.
6. One can actually keep the sukkah up the rest of the year, and turn it into kind of a deck, but it then becomes a permanent structure and you cannot use it the next year and must construct a new sukkah. It also marks you as kind of a weirdo. Illegal settlers in Israel do this all the time, actually – they’re not allowed to build in the area, but they are allowed to put up a sukkah, so to skirt the law they put the sukkah and then don’t take it down, but instead seal it up with real building materials after the holiday and hope no one notices their house has another room, then repeat the process the following year.
The Lulav and Etrog
By far the most confounding law to other people on my subway is the carrying of the lulav and etrog, which is taken to synagogue and shook every day except Shabbat. The lulav is a palm branch with two sticks of myrtle and two sticks of willow attached on each side, and the etrog is a citron fruit with is really expensive before Sukkot and like a dime after. By biblical commandment, each day we hold the lulav in one hand and the etrog in another, and shake them in what must be the most obvious fertility ritual ever, though somehow we manage to do it with a straight face every year.
Price-gouging is common for etrogim/lulav sets. Sometimes the prices are raised very high and the money is given to tzedakah (charity), and sometimes the guy selling you one is just a jerk. Last year I think I bought one for $15 and this year I couldn’t find one for under $25, with the guy at the stand blaming Egypt for their palm-branch embargo even though most of the palm branches in America do not come from Egypt.
(If some of this sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because the custom of carrying actual palm branches on Palm Sunday in Christianity is derived from this custom)
Buying a really great etrog and paying too much for it is said to bring good luck. This is taken to the extreme of people paying hundreds of dollars for their etrog. There’s actually a good Israeli movie called Ushpizin (guests) about a poor Hasidic couple in Jerusalem who recieve a special government stipend and decide to spend it entirely on the best etrog available, and then there’s a happy ending.
After the holiday, the etrog may be eaten. The Mishnah (second century CE) says, “Forthwith[after the holiday], the children threw away their lulavin and ate their citrons,” (Mishnah Sukkot, 4:7) but it’s not very good as a fruit. I can’t recommend it.
Up next: Shmini Atzeret, the made-up holiday, and Simfas Torah, my favorite holiday.
“On Rosh Hashanah is written; on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”
- Un’taneh Tokef Prayer (translated)
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most important day in the Jewish calendar. It occurs ten days after the New Year, at the end of the ten Days of Repentance. It is the only holiday that can override Shabbat, which it does this year.
At the beginning of the year, G-d takes stock of our lives and decides whether we will be inscribed in the Book of Life and live to see the next year or whether we will die during it. He makes His decision on Rosh Hashanah, but doesn’t write the names in the book until Yom Kippur, and He can change his mind depending on our level of repentance during this time. (He can reopen the book and make changes as late as Shmini Atzeret two weeks later). Needless to say, Yom Kippur, which is the final 24 hours before the inscription is made, is a time of fasting and teshuvah – repentance. We are judged twice – first as individuals, and a second time as a Jewish nation, so we are responsible to some extent for the sins of the Jewish community. Continue reading →
As usual with Jewish holidays, I’m making this post ahead of time because I am offline for the actual holiday.
Wednesday night begins Rosh Hashanah, (literally “head of the year”) a two-day High Holiday that marks the start of the new Jewish (lunar) year, and begins the Ten Days of Repentance up to Yom Kippur for the following Saturday. It is third in the most important events of the year, after Yom Kippur and Shabbat. It used to be a one-day celebration, but then we changed it because we’re stupid and can’t get enough of cooking and sitting in synagogue for waaaay too long. Like Shabbat, we can’t operate electricity, so there’s a lot of staring blankly at your family between meals long after you’ve run out of things to say.
Here are some holiday laws/customs:
1. The blowing of the Shofar – The Shofar is a musical instrument made from a ram’s horn that is blown at several points during the service to awaken us (sometimes literally) and call us to repent for our sins. It is also blown at daily morning services for the 30 days before Rosh Hashanah, the month of Elul. If you want to see the Shofar blown, this is pretty much the best video ever. If one of the days of Rosh Hashanh falls on Shabbat, the Shofar is not blown that day, because musical instruments are not played no Shabbat. Hearing the sounds of the Shofar are so important that many rabbis will travel to hospitals on the week up to Rosh Hoshanah to play the Shofar for patients who are unable to attend services. Continue reading →
I was supposed to write a post for today, wasn’t I? But that time is gone. Gone to a strep throat, and then fever, and blasting through this terrible iPod game because it was available and I wasn’t making good purchasing decisions while I had a fever and also I watched a ton of anime on my computer.
So … how about that Jane Austen, huh? Boy, do I know some interesting stuff about her and/or the time period she lived in but not off the top of my head right now. Anne Hathaway played her in a movie right? And Anne Hathaway is Catwoman. So Jane Austen is Catwoman. I know the logic is tricky, but have you ever seen them together at the same time. Huh? HUH? Continue reading →
The last few months have been a bit of a dry spell for me, for reasons unknown. I don’t worry about it too much – either I’m writing or I’m not. I’m not editing anything, either, as I sit in a holding period, trying to boost sales with social media publicity and waiting to hear back from publishers about my next book, or friends about what they thought of that book I want to self-publish, because man do I need some advice on that. Here’s what else I’m up to:
(1) Painting. Currently it’s Tibetan thangkas. I hate painting fruit bowls or that crap that I was taught to paint in school. No, it’s natural pigmentation and rabbit skin glue being dissolved in a bowl to make canvas for me (before this it was medieval manuscript illumination). I need some create outlet, whether I know it or not, so I wander into something and hopefully stay in it long enough to become good at it.
(2) Reading. I do a lot of this anyway, but I read things that are not Regency-related, or are but only tangentially, or are for another project, or were .99c at the Salvation Army store and looked like a good read. Mostly it’s non-fiction – only one book on my 12-book bedstand collection is fiction and it’s been there for a long time.
(3) Working at my other two jobs. Because writing doesn’t pay the bills, so I sit in a literary agent’s office answering her emails and rejecting other people’s manuscripts. I do this for two different people. They don’t pay very much; they’re more jobs to have so I can say to my mom, “I have three jobs right now.”
(4) Video games. Is it free? Does it involve a mind-numbing amount of leveling up to the point where my character can kill everything in the game and is therefore unplayable? I’m there. As I type this I have Celtic Heroes running on my iPhone, killing goblins and building up gold reserves so I can buy that armor that makes me even more invincible than I already am.
(5) Worry incessantly about sales, reviews, and things I cannot change. Any moment that I’m not doing this is clearly lost time and makes me a failure as a writer and a person.
(6) Not cleaning my room. Because I’m an adult and I don’t have to do this anymore.
In other news, Other Tales: Stories from the Ballad of Gregoire Darcy should be available shortly in all e-Stores because it has passed the Smashwords test of distribution. By “shortly” I probably mean two weeks. Until then you can get it for free here.
Tisha b’Av is not a holiday or a festival. It is a fast day, the second most important one in our calendar (Yom Kippur, a High Holiday, is the most important). It’s also the only other full 25-hour fast. There are several important half-fasts (lasting from dawn until dusk) during the year that I forget about entirely because I’m exempt from all fasts for health issues.
Tisha b’Av, which occurs on the 9th of Av, commemorates the destruction of both Temples, which were both destroyed on the same day. This year it falls on August 8th-9th, which is very rare, because usually the Hebrew and Gregorian months don’t match up. The 9th of Av is just a bad day in Jewish history. Here’s a list of bad things that have happened on it:
- The Twelve Spies sent by Moses to scout the land of Israel returned with a bad report, causing G-d to decree 40 years of wandering in the desert before they could enter the land. (Numbers Chapters 13-14)
- The First Temple built was destroyed by the Babylonians (586 BCE)
- The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans (70 CE)
- The Bar Kochba Revolt was crushed by the Romans (133 CE)
- Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade, killing 10,00 Jews in German lands and untold numbers of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land. (1095 CE)
- The Jews were expelled from England. (1290)
- The Jews were expelled from Spain. (1492) (This may be a myth)
- World War I began (1914)
- The Warsaw Ghetto was dissolved and its inhabitants sent to Treblinka Concentration Camp. (1942)
The day is not just a fast day. There are additional prohibitions on speech and action:
No eating or drinking
No washing or bathing
No application of creams or oils or perfumes
No wearing of leather shoes
No marital relations
No study of Torah (because it brings joy)
No greeting people or casual conversation
We have a custom to read Eichah – the Book of Lamentations – by candlelight at the start of the fast. Written by Jeremiah after seeing the destruction of the First Temple, it’s sung in a particularly haunting tone.
The good news is that the 9th of Av is also the Messiah’s birthday (we don’t know where people are getting other dates). Sephardi Jews (Jews of Spanish descent) have a custom to give each other birthday gifts in the later half of the day in celebration of this fact, and in the hope that the Moschiach has already been born and will arrive in this generation.
Other Tales: Stories from the Ballad of Gregoire Darcy is a small collection of short stories related to my series. Before discussing what went into it, let me first explain how to get it: for free on my website or on Smashwords, or for 99c on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. If you don’t have an eReader, just download the .pdf and print it – it’s only about 25 pages. As to why it costs money on some sites, it’s because they won’t let me sell it for under 99c unless they’re meeting a price on another site, and Smashwords does not count as “another site.” Hopefully this will all get sorted out and it will be free everywhere.
Now that you’re bored hearing about website pricing, here’s the deal: I had some short stories laying around and decided to write a third and turn them into a free collection. They involve material that happened before my books or happened during but were written at another time, and therefore didn’t make it into the initial material.
“Young Master Darcy” – This story is about Fitzwilliam Darcy’s father, Geoffrey Darcy the Elder (the younger is Darcy’s son). We only hear about him in glowing terms from Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, but in my books he had a bit of scandalous past – and an older brother who should have inherited Pemberley. I focused briefly on a pivotal moment in his young life that set him on the course to being the man Darcy knew.
“The Tale of the Brothers Maddox” – A lot of people have asked me why Dr. Maddox is so devoted to his scoundrel older brother, so I wrote this story about their childhood to explain that.
“Life in London; or, the Day Scenes of the Scoundrel Mugin and the Pure Young Miss Bingley” – This was supposed to be a spoof of Egan’s Life in London, but have you actually tried to read it? Because it’s impenetrable. It happens during the events of The Ballad of Gregoire Darcy, but in the background, as Mugin the Japanese ex-con spends the day in London with young Georgiana Bingley, doing all kinds of things a foreigner and a 12-year-old girl shouldn’t be doing. Despite the hard time I had writing it, I really do care a lot about this story because it’s the only material that really shows how Mugin, who has lived in Japan and China for most of his life, views Regency London. (Hint: He’s not impressed) I have a lot of characters who operate outside the norms of English culture, but I rarely do something entirely from their perspective because it’s jarring in a larger novel, so I did it here.
So pick up your digital copy today! Because seriously, there is no reason not to.
GIVEAWAY: You all win! Everyone gets one! Congratulations!