Last night, my six-year old asked what his Hebrew school would be doing for Valentine’s Day. “Um, nothing, really,” I explained. “It’s not a Jewish holiday.” He was incredulous.
Together, he and his sister had spent many hours crafting handmade cards for each child in his public school class and had fundraised for their school’s Valentine’s Day dance-a-thon, while I had prepared Rice Krispie squares with jelly hearts to distribute, purchased small candies to dole out into baggies, and baked double chocolate cookies for the school’s holiday bake sale.
A veritable feat of cutting, pasting, stirring, and baking by two young Jews and their mom -- and all for a holiday that’s not Jewish?
Writing in today’s The Forward, Johnna Kaplan argues that Valentine’s Day should be cancelled altogether. She suggests replacing it with Tu B’Av, an obscure Jewish lovers’ holiday falling on the fifteenth of the month of Av.
But I’m not so sure I’d like to see Valentine’s Day go the way of the dodo bird. Valentine’s Day presents a perfect admixture of opportunity and challenge when it comes to being Jewish in North America. And as a parent, the opportunities and challenges are all the more intense - but ultimately all the sweeter.
Despite its historical, saintly homage, Valentine’s Day has arguably been stripped of religious connotation in much of North America. Anyone with a nickel for a cinnamon heart or a knack for cutting construction paper on the diagonal can celebrate it. And judging by the industry that has become Valentine’s Day - many indeed do.
Just because one can celebrate it, of course, doesn’t mean one should. But here’s where I think being Jewish enhances the marking of Valentine’s Day - and Valentine’s Day enhances being Jewish.
Jews in the Diaspora have long struggled to maintain identity amidst powerful forces of assimilation. It’s rarely been easy. In closed societies, host states and their citizens have often violently turned on the Jewish communities living among them. In more open societies, there is a powerful temptation to assimilate completely. Jews themselves worry about Jewish continuity - a group fear which psychologist Michael Wohl, my colleague at Carleton University, calls “collective angst.”
At the same time, being Jewish has never meant living in total isolation from the broader community, as much as some Jewish contemporary communities appear to strive for this. Rabbi David Hartman, who died this week, said it best: “Human wholeness is realized in relationship.” Here, I extend Hartman’s interpersonal argument to suggest that Jewish identity is nurtured by the broader society, and the broader society is nurtured by Jewish identity.
Part of a rich and deeply internalized Jewish identity is that invisible aspect of identity. It is something deep, a big shaggy, in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks. Meaningful Jewish identity - the kind that can prove an antidote to collective fears over Jewish continuity - is the kind animated by deep-seated yearnings and desires.
The question Jewish parents need to ask on Valentine’s Day - and every other day - is, have my kids internalized the “big shaggy” of Jewish identity?
While my kids ink their Valentine’s Day cards, I may very well overhear them humming the Ashrei prayer - or Adon Olam. As we bake together, we speak Hebrew, as we do every day. A weekend sleepover at a non-Jewish friend’s involves a request to bring along some leftover challah from our shabbat table. And at any given moment, one of my kids may take a break from what they are doing and exclaim intense frustration over waiting another long 153 days to return to Jewish camp. Quite simply, being Jewish is something that permeates their being.
Indeed, we will never know how our children will “turn out” - nor do we ever know how we ourselves will “turn out.” But my instinct as a parent tells me that my kids will be ultimately be better Jews through their engagement with others. Valentine’s Day - with its ritualized expressions of affection for one’s classmates through sticky embraces of chocolate and foil - is the kind of day where Jewish identity can happily intertwine with secular society, as well it should.
If the dance of twenty-first century Jewish life is a mixed basket of chocolate hearts and prune hamentaschen, let’s remember that the taste of each is enhanced by the memory - and anticipation - of the other.