Years ago, I was walking out of a local Jewish day school late one fall afternoon and noticed a mother and son leaving at the same time. The boy, around the age of 11, seemed a little nervous as I held the door open for them.
“Mom,” he said to her, “it’s Halloween and I still don’t have a costume. What am I going to wear tonight?” The mom looked at me with an expression of horror and glanced around to see if anyone else heard her son’s comment. She shushed him and whispered, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out when we get home.”
There are certain holidays on the American calendar that make some Jews a bit queasy. Halloween is one — even though most of us observe it in some fashion or another — because of its pagan and later Catholic origins. (A friend of mine also attributes some Jews’ dismay with Halloween to the pogroms that reportedly took place in Eastern Europe on that day.)
Of course there’s Christmas, a holiday with which many Jews have a love-hate relationship (and which is largely responsible for the growing Chanukah industry). It’s hard not to enjoy the dazzling lights, joyous gatherings and good cheer of Christmas. But the oversaturation and rampant materialism associated with the holiday celebrating Jesus’s birth confounds many Jews (and plenty of Christians as well). The result is a mixture of ambivalence and envy regarding the holiday, the latter evidenced by the fact that the most popular Christmas songs were either penned or co-written by Jews.
And then there’s Valentine’s Day, that quirky February holiday with Christian roots that the folks at Hallmark and Victoria’s Secret love so much. Our more observant friends remind us Judaism has its own version — Tu B’Av, a minor holiday of the Second Temple period in which the unmarried Jewish women of Jerusalem dressed in white garments and frolicked in the vineyards while single men chose their brides, according to the Talmud.
But let’s face it, that ain’t gonna fly in 21st-century America (unless you’re on “The Bachelor”). Like many holidays here, Valentine’s Day is ubiquitous and hard to avoid. Furthermore, it’s a celebration of love and appreciating the people in our midst. Even a curmudgeon must ask, “Is that really so bad?”
Yes, Valentine’s Day is rooted in the martyrdom of St. Valentine of Rome. But like other American observances and festivals, it has morphed into a secular means of bringing people together and shaking off the doldrums of everyday life (not to mention of making a buck or two).
In the case of Valentine’s Day, it’s expressly to pay tribute to the concept of love — romantic and otherwise — and to honor those people we care deeply about. I used to have a buddy who sent Valentine’s Day cards and flowers to his bubbies every year. At the time, I thought it was a bit odd and hokey. Now, I get it.
As always, those ancient Hebrew sages Burt Bacharach and Hal David were right on the money. What the world needs now, indeed, is love. Now more than ever.
In our cover story this month, Jmore profiles five couples who embody the true spirit of love and commitment. We hope you’ll enjoy meeting them as much as we did getting to know them.
Alan Feiler, Editor-in-Chief
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