Eight Crazy Nights...And Other Jewish Things You Always Wanted to Know
A primer on Jewish holidays from an expert
I have some sad news to break to all the Sub/Verses fans out there. Despite the cool Chad guy vibe I give off on these pages, I am actually an enormous dork. Such a dork, in fact, that I have made internet friends through the mutual love of a particular podcast (The Fifth Column, in case you’re interested).
It was through that assemblage of dorks that I met our first-ever Sub/Verses guest columnist, ChayaLeah. As many of you know (or may have intuited from the undercurrent of neuroticism in my writing), I am Jewish, but ChayaLeah is JEWISH. The kind of Jewish that gets all caps and bolded…Hasidic Jewish. Since I’ve known her, she’s taught me a lot about my religion, including a few wild things that I thought the Sub/Verses family should know about Jews and our holidays.
Aside from trying to save my mortal soul in her spare time, ChayaLeah hosts a podcast called “Ask A Jew” with her sidekick Yael. The podcast is a great listen with a wide variety of outstanding guests. I highly recommend you subscribe (after you read the article, of course).
Anyone who knows anything about Judaism will have heard of the major Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah, and Passover. Still, there are also many lesser-known Jewish holidays, each with its own idiosyncrasies (my people are good for roughly one holiday per week or so). I’m often met with confusion and laughter when I walk the uninitiated through the rituals associated with these holidays. Well, today I will tell you about some of the more interesting ones.
Remember that I am a Chassidic Jew with our own particular set of customs and rituals. Some of what I’m describing is true for all Jews, some just for Orthodox Jews, some for Chassidim, and some for my specific sect of Chassidim… bear with me; we are a complicated people.
Rosh Hashanah: The Jewish New Year
Did you know Jews are so special we have a different New Year from the “non-chosen” folk? Well, we do, and this is it. One difference that makes us exceptionally extraordinary is that we spend most of the day being solemn and serious and spend a long time in synagogue praying for a good new year…a loooooooong time. Big meals are eaten, and family time is enjoyed. Some of the other differences between this New Year and the January 1st version is that while you’re all out getting drunk (and hopefully laid), we dip apples in honey (to represent a sweet, new year), blow a ram’s horn (called a shofar), eat round challahs (to symbolize the continuous cycle of time), and chop off the head of a fish or lamb to display on the table (to represent being a “head” and not the “tail,”). Who said Jews can’t party like it’s 5783 (on the Jewish calendar, it is)?
Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement
While the Catholic types can confess their sins anytime they want, the Jews have to make deposits into their sin bank account all year and drain it in one day; and Yom Kippur is that day.
Yom Kippur is the most solemn, serious day on the Jewish calendar. No eating, drinking (even water), wearing leather shoes, showering, makeup, or sex- it’s a long 25 hours. That’s not a typo; the Yom Kippur fast is 25 hours long, from an hour before sunset until after sunset the following day. Most Orthodox Jews spend the time in synagogue praying fervently for forgiveness from G-d and for a good year (see a trend here? Jewish history tells us that we need every leg-up we can get). It’s advisable to avoid talking to anyone too closely during the day- it could be hazardous. More recently, people have started taking caffeine suppositories to help get them through the day…. No thanks, I’ll manage with a headache for a day.
There is one custom we perform on Yom that is almost as divisive as if the greatest Jewish athlete is Sandy Koufax or Mark Spitz. The morning before, we perform a “Kaparot.” The idea of Kaparot is that we want G-d to have mercy on us for all the sins we’ve committed over the past year, and can you think of a better way to ask for G-d’s mercy than to swing a live chicken over your head? Us either. We take the chicken, make a blessing, and swing the fowl gently over our heads three times, asking G-d to take it as a stand-in for us. Then, we hand the chicken over to be slaughtered. I’m unaware of any other people who give their food an amusement park ride before they’re decapitated; that’s how awesome the Jews are. Pro tip – if you ever partake in the “chicken swing,” make sure to do it gently; there are some stories about overzealous swingers and trips to the emergency room which I won’t get into here.
I always feel bad for my chicken, but you’ll take whatever you can when you’ve got this many sins. Also, I can’t bear touching the actual chicken, so I have one of my sons to hold it for me. Afterward, the chicken is cut up, cleaned, and given to poor families.
A fringe benefit of this ritual is that it’s a major FU to PETA. PETA protests this event yearly and yells “nazi” and “murderer” at little Jewish boys and girls. Fuck them. I’m never going to stop doing Kaparot now. In fact, I make a point of sinning throughout the year, so I have to do this to piss them off. This whole thing is obviously symbolic- we are not morons; we know our sins can’t be transferred to a dumb chicken.
(editors note – when I first read this, I thought ChayaLeah wrote, “We are not Mormons…” which made it even funnier.)
Sukkot: The Holiday of Huts
Poor Sukkot. Since it’s a few days after Yom Kippur, probably my favorite Jewish holiday gets undeservedly little attention. First, we build a hut (called a sukkah) in our backyard. It must have at least three walls and a roof made of either palm branches or bamboo. Not only do we eat all of our meals here for eight days, but some people also have the custom of sleeping in the Sukkah. They make up for these eight days by staying at only five-star hotels the other 357 days of the year.
Another Sukkot ritual is to take a Lulav (palm), an etrog (a fruit that looks like a lemon but costs $100), a myrtle branch, and willow branches, put these all together, and shake them in every direction. We do this every morning of Sukkot. Stop laughing.
Shmini Atzeret: the 8th day
Shmini Atzeret is like the Seth Meyers of Jewish holidays. No one understands why it’s there, but it just inexplicably is. Even the Torah can’t figure out a reason for it or him.
Chanukah: Jewish Christmas - NOT
This is a very misunderstood holiday. I’m not going to get into the history of Chanukah and why we celebrate it, but long story short, it involves wrecking foreign invaders who stole our land and reclaiming it for ourselves. We do nothing particularly strange except eat oily foods like donuts and latkes to remind us of the miracle of the oil in the Temple. Jews have long been asking why the miracle couldn’t have happened with a carrot or spinach. A real mystery.
Purim: Another celebration of an attempted annihilation of the Jewish people
This time the story is set in Persia, and the Jews are set to be eradicated by King Ahasverosh. For Purim, everyone gets dressed up (think wholesome costumes, not slutty OnlyFans maids), goes to big parties, and gets sloshed. Before some of us pray to the porcelain G-d (the only false idol for which there is a biblical workaround), we eat a festive meal, listen to the story of the Megiallahm from the Book of Esther (which is read in synagogue twice), give charity to the poor, and exchange gifts of food. I shit you not; some families manage to coordinate their 12 kids with matching costumes and thematic gift baskets. Needless to say, I’m always hustling to find costumes for my kids the night before. Thank G-d for Amazon.
One of the hilarious customs of Purim is that during the reading of the Megiallah, whenever the name of the villain, Haman, is mentioned, the whole synagogue erupts in boos. We even have a special noisemaker for the occasion called a gragger. It’s actually fun and has been a therapeutic way of dealing with attempted destruction for generations.
Passover: The Holiday of Freedom
I don’t even know where to start with this one. Average Jews celebrate the Exodus from Egypt by not eating bread for eight days and participating in a Seder on the 1st and sometimes 2nd night of Passover. But we are not average…or normal. We take the commandment of not eating leavened bread so seriously that we change our entire kitchens for eight days. Every dish, pot, fork, and bowl gets put away, and the Passover dishes, pots, etc., come out of storage. The fridge, counters, and sinks get covered with tin foil and other materials; the stove gets blowtorched and on and on and on. We clean the whole house to make sure there is no bread to be found anywhere. The night before Passover, we do an official “checking” called “Bedikas Chametz” with a candle, feather, and spoon (I’m laughing as I’m writing this, but it’s 100% true) all over the house to make sure it’s clean and ready for the holiday.
During Passover, we don’t eat any leavened bread, grains, beans, corn, rice, unpeelable fruits and vegetables, or spices. It’s probably easier to tell you what we do eat: matzah, wine, chicken, meat, potatoes, apples, carrots, and salt. Please be friendly to the Jewish families you see on Passover; they are hungry and just want a sandwich.
I’ll have to write a whole different article explaining the rituals at the Seder. It needs 2000 words minimum.
Lag B’aomer- The 33rd day of the Omer
This is a great one, and I’m pretty sure none of you have heard of this holiday. Context is critical here. There are 49 days between the holiday of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot. This period is called the Omer. We count the Omer every night in preparation for the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah. This period of seven weeks is also a mourning period. About 2000 years ago, a terrible plague broke out among the students of Rabbi Akiva, and about 24,000 of them were killed (maybe it was covid? Does anyone know if Fauci was doing Gain of Function testing back then?)
Therefore, there are things we don’t do during this time, for example, no haircuts, no music (I try doing only a Capella, but it makes me want to slit my wrists), no weddings, etc. But, on the 33rd day of the counting, we take a break from mourning because Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai passed away on this day. Rabbi Yochai was one of the greatest rabbis in Jewish history, the author of the first work of Kabbalah, and a great mystic. To honor his legacy, the 33rd day is a celebration. Orthodox communities around the world celebrate with bonfires, parades, and concerts. Also, customarily, children play with bows and arrows. This is not some cultural appropriation bullshit. Jews were doing this before we knew about the Native Americans.
Why bows and arrows, you ask? Rainbows symbolize G-d’s anger at humanity but his promise to never destroy the world again as he did during the Flood of Noah. It says in rabbinic literature that Rabbi Yochai was so great that there was never a rainbow seen during his lifetime—a magnificent honor. Here’s the connection: the Hebrew word for rainbow is the same word for bow- Keshet. Also, the bow happens to be in the shape of a rainbow. Ip so facto, we shoot bows and arrows on Lag B’aomer. to commemorate the extraordinary life of Rabbi Shimon. I hope I cleared that one up.
Shavuot: The Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai
This one is more straightforward. Shavuot celebrates G-d’s decision to take the Jews out of bondage in Egypt, bring them into the desert, and create an everlasting covenant through the Torah. It’s a beautiful holiday celebrated by going to synagogue to listen to the reading of the Ten Commandments and eating lots of dairy foods. This is a change because all other holidays are heavily meat-oriented; the regular overdoing of protein should be evident because of our vast Jew muscles. However, Shavuot is all about cheesecake and blintzes (an absolute joy for Ashkenazi Jews who are all lactose intolerant and have IBS.)
One interesting custom on Shavuot is to stay awake all night learning Torah. This is in preparation for the “giving of the Torah” the next day. It’s also because in the original story, the Jews went to sleep the night before the giving of the Torah, and G-d was pretty pissed. I think he wanted to see some more excitement from the people.
Well, there you have it. I’ve only covered a fraction of the holidays, but it’s all the time I have for now…I have a cheesecake to make.
Be sure to check out ChayaLeah’s terrific podcast Ask A Jew here.