Category Archives: Judaism

A Humanist Chanukah

I am by no means an authority on Humanism, I’ve met a few inspirational people who have been working on it for a lot longer than myself. However I’ve found it hard to find drop in alternatives to some of my families usual traditions. Rather than reinvent the wheel every year, I’m going to start writing them down – and doing so publicly so that others can comment and improve on them and perhaps find easy god-free ways to mark the passing seasons with their friends and families too.

What is Chanukah all about?

The first thing we need to do is figure out what Chanukah is about, why do we get together every year to light candles eat particular food? Some of these traditions will be specific to my personal preferences, my family, my community, my country and my ancestors traditions. Yours will probably differ – but that’s the joy of variety.

On Chanukah we:

Light the Chanukiah:

  • To count the days/mark the passing of time.
  • For an excuse to get together every day for a week (especially now that most of my siblings are living in difference places)
  • Because lights are pretty
  • To cheer us up at what can be a down-trodden time of year (it’s getting colder, it’s getting wet – but we’re not quite remembering our coat every time we leave the house).

Decorate the house – especially with lights

By the time Chanukah comes around, it’s usually dark when we leave work. It’s also dark when we get out of bed. Humans like daytime, we’re not nocturnal creatures. Brightening up our house – especially on the outside – is almost like saying “It’s dark, we might have street lights to see the path – but lets add colour to make us happy too”. We’re turning the darkness into happiness.

Give Presents

Because the giving and receiving of gifts is nice. Gift giving on Chanukah has actually become less central to my family as we’ve got older.


The playing of Deeidel traditionally stems from when the Jews were prohibited from teaching Torah under the Greeks they would hide out in the forest to study Torah – if the Greek patrols came around they’d hide the learning materials and pull out spinning tops – pretending they were just playing with them.

Later on the Dreidel was incorporated into the Chanukah traditions and the letter was added to relate it to the Miracle of the Oil. This is inherently problematic for a humanist Chanukah which is trying to avoid the supernatural.

The tradition of gambling on Chanukah seems to stem from the Dreidel – rather than anything else. Gambling always starts with hope – even though you know that hope is usually not going to come about. This could tie in nicely with an idea that the story of Chanukah is about fighting for what you believe in – and of being hopeful but realistic.

Humanist Chanukah Ceremony

With all that in mind, perhaps we’re ready to put some words down.

Welcome to Chanukah

Chanukah is the Jewish festival of light. As the nights get longer and the days get colder it can be easy to contrast this season with the warm and bright summer which suddenly seems so long ago.

Spring might be only a few months away, but those months will be filled with not-enough-jumpers, forgotten rain coats and slippery pavements.

Festival of Light

As an antidote to this downtrodden time of year we try to bring more light into the world. We decorate our homes – inside and out. We make an extra effort to see our friends and families – to bring light into our hearts, but also to connect with them in advance of the tough season ahead – a season when many people struggle with ill health, cold houses, tough transport and isolation. It’s a chance to remind us of who we have, and to remind others that they can call on us if they need any assistance.

A Story of Hope

The story of Chanukah tells of a small band of people fighting for what they believe in against a great and mighty foe.

A little over 2000 years ago, the Greek King Antiochus took park in a popular activity for rulers throughout history – he banned the Jews from being Jewish. Taking over their temple and making a right old mess of it.

A brave Jew called Judah Maccabee (and his father, who’s name everyone forgets) fought back with their rag-tag gorilla fighers against the might of the Greek empire!

After a few years of struggle, the Maccabees won! They reclaimed their temple, and their freedom to be Jewish.

They cleaned up the temple, and rededicated it (the Hebrew word Chanukah means Dedication). They re-light the Menorah – the eternal flame which burned constantly in the Temple (and Synagogues to this day have a Ner Tamid – an Eternal Light – which is never switched off).

As much as they rummaged around, they could only find enough oil to last one day! And they needed 8 days to get new oil. Oh dear oh dear!

Ever optimistic, they light the Menorah anyway, and a miracle happened – the oil lasted 8 whole days! And that’s why we celebrate Chanukah for 8 days today.

A Story of Hope

The world today is full of so many rights, but also so many wrongs and we often feel helpless. Sometimes the biggest contributions we can make might still seem tiny in the grand scheme of things.

Even if I wasted nothing; travelled and ate responsibly; and considered the impact of my choices – would the world notice the impact?

No – it probably wouldn’t but if we were one of a thousand other people doing the same then the collective impact will all add up.

The Story of Chanukah is one of hope in the face of big issues, so whether you’re fighting to end animal cruelty, reduce environmental damage, to care for the needy or for a more just world – whatever your good fight is don’t give up on it.

Lighting the Lights

We’re now going to light the Chanukiah. We’ll be lighting all 8 branches because today is the 8th day of Chanukah. Once they’re lit, I’d like to invite you to spend some time enjoying their light and their warmth and to remember this moment when the whole world seems to be dark and cold.

Traditionally we would thank God for commanding us to do this, but God didn’t actually command us to light them. Instead we’ve written 8 kinds of light we are grateful for, and while we bask in the light of the Chanukiah we will read them out.

Now light the candles

8 Things for 8 Nights

As you light the candles, say one of the 8 Things below.

  1. I am grateful for the gentle light of the Chanukah candles
    1. Modeh Ani al ha’or ha’adin shel nerot Chanukah
    2. מודה אני על האור העדין של נרות החנוכה
  2. I am grateful for the morning light
    1. Modeh Ani al or ha’boker
    2. מודה אני על אור הבוקר
  3. I am grateful for the light of fire, which keeps us warm in the cold
    1. Modeh Ani al or ha’esh sh’machamem otanu b’choref ha’car
    2. מודה אני על אור האש שמחמם אותנו בחורף הקר
  4. I am grateful for the small light of the evening
    1. Modeh Ani al ha’or ha’katan shel ha’erev
    2. מודה אני על האור הקטן של הערב
  5. I am grateful for the light of the sun, from which all life comes
    1. Modeh Ani al Or Ha’Shemesh, Sheh’Mimenu Ma’gi’im Col Ha’Chaiot
    2. מודה אני על אור השמש, שממנו מגיעים כל החיים
  6. I am grateful for the light in our homes
    1. Modeh Ani al Ha’Or B’Bayitim Shelanu
    2. מודה אני על האור בבתים שלנו
  7. I am grateful for the light from the stars
    1. Modeh Ani Al Ha’Or Me’Ha’Cochav’im
    2. מודה אני על האור מהכוכבים
  8. I am grateful for the light within ourselves
    1. Modeh Ani al Ha’Or She’be’tochanu
    2. מודה אני על האור שבתוכנו

Purim in Panama

This time last year I was living on a boat moored in a teeny village with a fantastic past. Unfortunately, it’s present has little more to offer tourists than great pizza and a place to anchor a boat. It did, however, have a painfully slow connection to Panama City. The village was Portobello, the former gold port of the world, and I was getting out of there for Purim.

One afternoon, while eating a great pizza with a glass of melon juice I noticed a guy wearing a Magen David around his neck. We are taught that there are Jews all over the world, but what does that really mean? And what does it mean to meet another Jew so far from home?

The curiosity of Jews

I’d already spent the last few weeks sailing with my new friend Tom, she and I had marvelled at our shared Jewish knowledge. It wasn’t that here, thousands of miles from home, we both know what a mezuzah is, and no, Rabbi, we didn’t have late night Torah study sessions (although we did do a Shabbat Service and Friday night dinner on board). For us, it was the songs, we knew the same words to the same tunes!

Here in Panama was another opportunity, rather than meeting Jews by chance through other activities, I now felt compelled to introduce myself to him. So I did. “Hey, are you Jewish?” sounds much stranger when you say it out loud but he smiled, said "yes, and we started chatting. He was visiting some family in Portobello, and heading back to Panama City, I was also heading to Panama City to buy some supplies for the boat and he offered me a lift. It’s an hour and a half’s drive during which we discussed Judaism in Panama and in London, and he explained that I’d be quite safe in the dangerous city of Colon because I was too scruffy to look worth robbing. Thanks…. I think!

I asked him about Purim, which was coming up in a few days, it’d be cool to see how they do things here. Without a moment’s hesitation he invited me along to his Synagogue! There are 3 or 4 communities in Panama City, and he was a member of the Progressive community, Kol Shearith Israel.

Purim Arrives!

A week went by, the captain said the weather was clear, we were going to set sail for San Blas on Thursday morning at dawn. I said I’m afraid I cannot come, I’ll be in Panama City for Pruim and can’t be back until the afternoon. I honestly felt like Mordechi, as if the whole of Judaism rested on my being a good Jew this week (which had nothing to do with the huge party Chabad were throwing that night, honest). The captains face wasn’t good, as his [[First Mate]] I helped to run the boat. It was only a small trip and he could manage without me (this captain was so epic he could manage without anyone), but I think he hoped I’d stay on after this last leg – despite knowing I had to get to Guatemala. He agreed to leave Friday morning (weather permitting) so I could make it back in time.

Wednesday afternoon I hopped on one of the amazing pimped out Panama buses, music blaring and neon lights streaking all the way to Colon where I changed for a comparatively dull coach to Panama City. A rude-beyond-belief taxi driver took me to the Synagogue which I entered tentatively. Greeted by smiles and offerings of fancy dress broke down all barriers, I entered the sanctuary and sought out my friend, not seeing him I sat next to a family and made a new one. Halfway through the service, I moved a few rows forward when I spotted him.

Right at Home

More than 5 thousand miles from home, on the coast of the Pacific, in a land of a Spanish, American and tribal mix, the closest to the Equator I’d managed, aside from reading the Megila in Spanish I could have been in Finchley. The rabbi was over dressed and over excited, the kids were running amok in their as super hero costumes, the teenagers chatted and the parents tried to make everyone enjoy it as much as they remembered enjoying it.

My Spanish was still awful, but I knew the story through and through and booed and cheered along with everyone else. At the end, some of the Bar Mitzva students came on and gave a little show. It seemed like one super talented young man wanted to perform and dragged his friends along. Ever seen that one before? He did some break dancing, and a magic show, and every was happy! He even had an en-core.

After the service there was a reception and I had food thrust upon me. Ahh Jews Smile There was Pizza, biscuits, wine and coke. Not too different from how we’d have done it at WLS. I mingled and spoke to bugs bunny and batman for about an hour before I had to head off to the Chabad Party. My friend had already left, but the Rabbi had found me earlier and asked whether I needed a lift anywhere, he introduced me to a family who offered me a lift without a moments hesitation.

Purim on a Boat

The week before all this happened I was staying in a hostel called Mamallenas, and there I saw a poster for a Purim party on a boat. Now that’s three of my favourite words in one title. It was the local Chabad house organising it, they had hired a massive boat and filled it with falafel and whisky. Charging a US$10 entrance to cover some costs, after that everything was free. Best of all, it started a about an hour after the service at Kol Shearith Israel finished, so after the friendly family dropped me off in the centre of town, they spoke to a Taxi driver so that he would know exactly where to take me – and a Panama price not Tourist price!

Finding the entrance was a bit tricky, it was down a dark road to the entrance of a small dock. I arrived to meet a large group of Israelis chatting in their typical super-fast Hebrew. Not the easiest conversations to join, but I made a few friends. The night was long, and excellent, the boat left the dock around 11pm and made a huge loop of Panama Harbour returning around 4 in the morning. After about an hour the falafel buffet and BBQ were unleashed, and soon after that was the Megila reading. In between and after everyone was chatting to everyone, it was a huge boat full of Jews from all over the world, with tales of their travels and stories of their own to tell.

Finding Jews Abroad

Panama was the first time I have sought out Jews while abroad, but I have done it ever since, in Nicaragua I visited the Chabad House for Friday night prayers, in Guatemala I the unique Adat Israel had my Guatemalan friend and myself round for Friday night dinner and in Mexico the Jewish area has many shops packed with Vegan goodies! The Internet has brought people closer together like never before, and special websites connect Jews all over the world to share in the joys of being Jewish. Particularly useful I found and for finding communities and making contact.

Passover in Guatemala

Last night I had the pleasure of hosting a [[Passover Seder]] for a dozen [[gentiles]] with a keen sense of interfaith interest.

As I made my way to Guate’s house a couple of weeks ago I got in touch and asked if he would allow me to have a [[Pesach Seder]] at his house, he and his family are most welcome. I also invited Clare and Alex, my Panama to Guatemala travel buddies.

Everyone I invited expressed their delight at the prospect. Some I knew were genuinely interested – either because of my existing knowledge of them or from the twinkle in their eye at the prospect. I must admit I presumed some, though curious, were simply up for anything.

Blown away would be a suitable way to describe my feelings every time someone else expressed interest in coming. Deeply honored at their interest in my culture would be another. From an original 5 people (Guate, his sister and parents and myself) we had 11 people cross the city to sit around the table. What started out as my reluctance to skip Pesach out of lack of external motivations has turned into a table load of intrigued faces.

The day began with a huge shop. Alex and I went first to Organica, then the Israeli store in town and finally the supermarket for anything we couldn’t get from the community friendly stores. A pop into a shop with a printer had several copies of a specially edited version of the Greenbury Haggadah ready for the night. Later, Byron would have to pop out for another 5 to meet the growing demand.

Back home the cooking began at 3pm, following on from how I usually do things at home I was running late and worried the Cherry Soup wouldn’t cool in time. Or worse – the Chocolate Matza Cakes wouldn’t set!

A Vegan Twist to the Seder

As a festival dedicated to freedom it doesn’t seem quite right to use products of slavery at the meal. With Fair trade chocolate, my best Fair Trade T-Shirt and a total absence of animal products I made my modest effort. If everyone did the same, perhaps slavery might one day become something we can be ashamed of our ancestors for.

After some reading of the Internet I decided on a Beetroot to represent the of Pascal Lamb sacrifice – though the best reason I could think of was the blood like drippings! The china lamb of back home would have been even better, but 8000 miles away. I couldn’t find any explanation for why a boiled potato makes a suitable substitution for an egg as a symbol of mourning – so we shall have to work on that for next year. (Eggs are the first thing served to mourners after a funeral).

As much as I value and love my tradition, it’s no excuse for cruelty.

We have no Yamulkas, said Alex

Alex, the travel buddy with no specific interest in religion but a general interest in everything, pointed out we have no Kippot. After making the cherry soup, and then reading the recipe (in that order) he set about making one for everyone out of the cardboard Matza boxes. With some pens to decorate them everyone – men, women, Jews, Christians and Atheists – were soon adorned with Vietnamese style Kippot.

The Punters Arrive

The Seder was due to start at 9, so that Guate’s parents could get back from their church meeting. At 6 I realized Alex and I had hardly eaten all day, so I served up some of excess the Matzagna filling with crackers  which kept people biding nicely over until the main course on page 21. Before we got started, I assigned some parts to some people to save having to break the Seder up. Great enthusiasm ensured and Paola took some photos of me looking very tutor like.

The Cups One Through Four

The Seder started well, and continued for a full 4 hours through to the Nirtzah at nearly 1am. Fielding the questions, seeing the translations (for Guate’s parents) and feeling the involvement from a group we, in England certainly, wouldn’t expect to be so engaged in someone else’s culture was truly one of the best things I’ve ever done.


Passover Abroad (why on earth do I not drink beer?)

While I’m at home, living comfortably at dad’s, Passover abstinence is a relatively simple affair. Matza is in abundance, the kitchen is familiar and the local availability of produce well known.

This is my second Pesach while travelling, the first I was in Israel for the first day. I quickly got out of there because their [Major generalization warning] idea of Passover is to simply make awful bread rise with something other than yeast – but my gripes with the Orthodox are not the point of this post.

The easier food is, the less you think about it. So in England my family tends to avoid bread, marmite, pasta, beer and anything obviously leavened (we are not a family who thinks “Levaning Agents” is kosher just because there’s a Rabbi somewhere who wants carrot cake at the seder). There’s some weird ones, however. Neither Marmite nor beer are leavened and pasta doesn’t even contain yeast. Yet we avoid them, but why?

While abroad I’ve had the opportunity to rethink my Passover adherence and to decide what I should do, what really doesn’t matter and why I do it. I have decided to avoid Bread, Churros and Beer. It’s been several years since I considered Marmite not Kosher for Passover, this year and in this circumstance I have decided that Tortillas are Kosher for Pesach. Not that it matters, since your Judaism is yours and mine is mine, but here’s why.

We do it, because our grandma did

This is the real reason for most Jewish traditions. We come up with all kinds of symbolic reasons and even find biblical references for most traditions, but the real reason we do what we do is because that’s what makes us Jewish. However un-Jewish we may think we are are the very fact we identify as a Jew makes us 100% more Jewish than everyone else.

Making an effort is what makes us Jewish

Identifying as being Jewish can be quite an effort, though doing what it takes to feel like a Jew (and so to identify as a Jew) takes even more effort. Judaism isn’t a religion for the lazy or the shy, most of our traditions are in place to show our Judaism to those around us – from the curly whirlies of the orthodox to the Chanukah Parties decorated with cheap Christmas lights of the liberal. Jews are a proud people with fun traditions that many gentiles enjoy partaking in.

I’m a Jew, yeah!

This week I am not drinking beer or eating bread because that’s what makes me feel Jewish. I could avoid wine that hasn’t been commercially blessed as “Kosher for Passover” but that wouldn’t make me feel any more Jewish than saying a blessing before using the toilet. I don’t entirely eat Matza to remember my ancestors in the desert, because my ponderings of the previous years have lead me to question the historical accuracy I used to take for granted. I eat Matza because I am a Jew, and that’s what Jews do at this time of year. Each and every one of the 13 million other Jews out there may do something different for Passover, but that makes no difference to my Judaism.

A by product of my adherence is the remembering of and opportunity to retell the story of the Jewish people, a story I am very proud to be in the cast for the latest chapter of.

This post was inspired by videos such as the following:

Photo Credits: