Tuesday, December 12, 2017

My Annual Chanukah Cram Course for Goys

Tonight marks the First Night of Chanukah—25 Kislev in the year 5778 in the Hebrew Calendar.  The date on many calendars will say December 13, but don’t let that fool you—by tradition the observance begins a sun down the evening before.  The festival will run for eight nights until December 20 or 2 Tevet.  This year Chaunkah begins and ends before the Winter Solstice or Christmas.  But don’t look for it on these exact dates again anytime soon.  Because the Hebrew Calendar is Lunar, the dates float in relationship to the Gregorian Calendar anywhere from late November to late December.
Some Christians think of Chanukah as the Jewish Christmas because it occurs around the same time of year and involves gift giving.  Hell, a lot of Jews do too. This post is to clear up any confusion.  Jews who have been at all attentive will find nothing new in the explanation of the festival and its customs.  This one is for my fellow goyim. 
Between 175-163 BC Judea was under the sway of the Greco-Syrian Seleucid Empire ruled by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  In Jerusalem and elsewhere there was split between a cosmopolitan elite of Hellenized Jews and traditionalists who hewed to the Law of Moses and the traditions of ritual purity set forth in their scriptures.  Antiochus, naturally supported the Hellenizers and replaced the “righteous” High Priest of the Temple, Yochanan, with his brother who adopted the Hellenized name Jason.  Then Jason was deposed in favor a still more compliant Priest, Menelaus.  With the king away making war against the Ptolemy Dynasty in Egypt, the traditionalists rose up, expelled the Hellenizers in what was essentially a Jewish civil war.
In Egypt Antiochus responded to appeals for support from his supporters by sending an army against Jerusalem.  Accounts in the First book of Maccabees say the Seleucid army fell upon the city and indiscriminately slew up to 80,000 sparing not infants, virgins, or sages.  The king ultimately essentially banned the practice of traditional Judaism, including keeping the Sabbath, observing dietary laws, and making required ritual sacrifice at the Temple.  He even erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple, profaning it, and ordered the people to worship it.  Resisters were hunted down and killed.  The army fanned out into the countryside and erected an altar in every village.  
In today's lingo Maccabee religious fundamentalist terrorists waged a long, bloody guerilla war against the lawful Selulid Syrian rulers and after they captured Jeruselem  vandalized the Helenistic altar in the Temple and replaced it with a symbol for their irrational primitive cult....Or they were freedom fighters and purifiers.  Pick your langauge, pick your poison.
In the village of Modin an elderly priest, Mattityahu slew a Hellenizer who attempted to worship at a pagan altar and his sons rose up and killed the Syrian officer in charge.  They took to the hills where others joined them in a guerilla style rebellion.  Eventually military leadership for the spreading rebellion fell to Judah the Strong and his brothers who were called the Maccabees meaning Who is Like You, O God.
For some years the Maccabees waged war, gathering to them the people repressed by the Seleucids.  They defeated host after host until they finally beat an army of 40,000 men under the commanders Nicanor and Gorgiash. 
Entering Jerusalem, Judah and his brothers cleared the Temple of the profane altars and performed ritual cleansing to make it satisfactory to the Lord for the resumption rituals.  They found that the traditional seven-branched golden candelabrum called the Menorah had been looted from the Temple along with the rest of its treasure.  They constructed a new Menorah from less expensive metal but found only enough ritually purified olive oil to keep the fires of the lamp burning for one day.
 Miraculously, the fire burned for eight days, long enough to purify more oil.  In commemoration of the miracle Jewish sages decreed an annual festival of thanksgiving in which lights would be ignited for eight nights in remembrance.
Details of the celebration evolved over time.  The Chanukah Menorah, later called chanukkiyah in Hebrew, differs from the Menorah of the Temple.  It has eight branches of equal height and a ninth shamash or worker candle set higher than the rest and used to light the others.  There was an early dispute about whether it was proper to light all of the candles on the first night of the festival and one less each night or one candle the first night and an additional one until all eight blaze on the final night.  That dispute was settled by the great Rabbi Hillel who sided with those adding a candle each night.
Chanukah is a home ritual.  The fire is to be re-kindled in each Jewish home, and in some traditions a separate Menorah is used for each member of the family.  In addition to the ritual lighting there are prayers and readings from scripture.  Chanukah is also one of the few rituals in which even Orthodox women are allowed to participate because “women, too, were part of the miracle.”

The private celebration of Chanukah even in times of opression and peril has added significance to the ancient story.  Here Jews in the Camp Westerbork in Holland in 1943 light the Mennorah.  Most in this photo would be transported to eastern extermination camps and be dead by the end of the war.
Because it is not described in the Torah or prescribed in ancient Law like Passover, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah is officially considered a minor Jewish holiday.  But its cultural importance is far greater even than its religious significance.  Because of the many persecutions of Jews through the centuries and because the ritual could safely be performed in the privacy of the home and away from prying eyes, Chanukah became a celebration of hope for deliverance against oppression as the Maccabees delivered the Temple from the defilers.  Stories about observances even in Nazi extermination camps have added special significance to the holiday for many.
Outside of the religious ritual, many cultural aspects have been attached to the holiday.  Those we see most commonly in the United States derive mostly from the Ashkenazi traditions of Eastern Europe.  First is the singing of the hymn Ma’oz Tzur, six stanzas which praise God for his protection and which account the persecutions for the Jews from the time of the Babylonian captivity.  Other songs and Psalms and songs are sung depending on various traditions.  Traditionally children were given small bags of gelttoy coins or chocolate coins wrapped in golden foil. In much of the West, and now more frequently in Israel, small presents are also given children each night. 
Children often use their gelt to play a gambling game with a traditional toy top—a dreidel, imprinted on each of its four sides with a Hebrew letter. These letters are an acronym for the Hebrew Nes Gadol Haya Sham—“a great miracle happened there.”
The holiday is also celebrated with special foods.  Because oil is central to the story, foods fried in oil are traditional, most notably latkespotato pancakes—and sufganiotdeep fried doughnuts. 

The addition of Cheese to the Chaunuka table in some traditions incorporates the older story of defiance and resistance--the beheading of the invading Assyrian general Holfernes by the pious widow Judith.  It was a popular, if gory subject for Renaisance artists. This one is by Florentine Cristofano Allori in 1613.
Some traditions also eat cheese in commemoration of Judith, a pious widow who saved her village by plying Holofernes, an Assyrian general with cheese and wine and then cutting off his head.  This older story is associated in some branches of Judaism with Chanukah because Judith is believed to have been the aunt or great aunt of Judah Maccabee.

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Day at Tree of Life—AM Sexual Harassment Eye Opener, PM Joyful Holiday Concert

How much can you squeeze in at one small Church on a Sunday in the middle of the Holiday Season?  As it turns out, quite a lot and plenty of emotional variety thrown in as a bonus if that church is the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 West Bull Valley Road in McHenry.
TOL’s weekly adult discussion Coffee With Questions is addressing one of the most dramatic and controversial issues dominating the news today—sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse this Sunday morning December 17 at 9:15.  

Charges of sexual harassment have led to the downfall of leading political, entertainment, and business figures this year spurred by the groundswell of the #MeToo movement.  The issue is so important Coffee With Questions is issuing a special invitation to the public to join in its challenging discussion this week.The discussion will be facilitated by Judy Stettner, Tree of Life’s Office Administer and Co-chair of its Social Justice Team, and Terry Kappel, a well-known McHenry County social justice and political activist.

In keeping with the program’s format participants will be asked to consider several facts and questions:
In the past year there have been many public accusations of sexual misconduct, harassment, and rape. As allegations against individuals have come out, many women, and men have felt emboldened by the bravery of others to come out with their own violations, despite the pain of public humiliation, judgement, and retaliation. The #MeToo movement followed with revelations by multiple women on social media who shared their own painful experiences.
The numbers of women revealing abhorrent behavior has become a tidal wave. Some individuals have been fired or forced to resign their positions amid such accusations. Some who have been accused and have refused to acknowledge the accusations, and even resorted to the time tested tactic of slandering their accusers.
While accusations by men and women of sexual harassment have been more numerous in recent months, the allegations still face the same obstacles.
What is sexual harassment and where is the line between casual flirtatious conduct and misconduct?
Is there culture which permits and even excuses sexual behavior which can cross the line of appropriateness?
How do we maintain a presumption of innocence while still encouraging those abused to come forward?
What is the appropriate punishment for sexual misconduct?
What is the toll of sexual harassment on women and men who have experienced it?
Childcare is available with an advance request to Religious Education Director Sam Jones at samjones@ameritech.net .

The discussion is free and open to the public.

After Coffee With Questions concludes Sam Jones will lead a special all ages worship service at 10:45 celebrating Winter Solstice and the return of the light with a fire communion.

The Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation Choir sings at a Holiday Concert.  Right to left, Judy Sowinski, Judy Stettner, Ivy Sitkoski, Heather Madaus, and Beth Hoover.

‘Tis the Season is the theme of the Tree of Life’s annual Holiday Concert at 3 pm.
Music Director Forrest Ransburgh said:
 We celebrate great themes of Christmastime. Themes of Winter’s First Snow, Fireside Glow, and Good Friends You Know combine to inspire that special magic that only music of the holidays can! The concert will feature the wonderful Tree of Life Choir, the delightful First Notes youth program, and some fabulous guest musicians who will come together to make an afternoon of beautiful music.”
Almost 30 voices strong the Tree of Life Adult Choir is one of the most admired choral groups in McHenry County and noted for the breadth and originality of its repetoire.  The choir toured in Romania in 2015 and  performs across Northern Illinois.
There is plenty of parking and children are welcome to this family friendly event.  The building and sanctuary are wheel-chair accessible.  Light refreshments will be served in the Social Room after the concert.
Christmas and all of the seasonal Festivals of Light are celebrated at Tree of Life UU Congregation.
There is no admission charge for the performance, but a free-will collection will be taken.
For more information call Tree of Life at 815 322-2464, e-mail office@treeoflifeuu.org  or visit http://treeoflifeuu.org/2017/12/07/tis-the-season/ .

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Big Train Blew Past Them All—Walter Johnson

Pitcher Walter Johnson as a young hurler from the stix on a 1910 American Caramel Company trading card.

Pitching legend Walter Johnson, in most experts opinions the most dominating pitcher in Major League history over the long haul, passed on to the Great Ballpark in the sky on December 10, 1946 at the age of only 59.  Bad news for him, but good news for us in the bleak mid-winter, as poet Christina Rossetti once put it.  It gives us an opportunity to bring the sunshine and green grass of America’s pastime to the gloaming days of the year.
Johnson was born on November 6, 1887 on his parent’s farm near Humboldt in southeastern Kansas.  His mother, the former Minnie Olive Perry, was 20 years old and five years younger than her sodbuster husband at the time.  She would go on to long outlive her illustrious son, dying in 1967 at the age of 100.
When the boy was 14 in 1902 the family relocated to Olinda, California, in the Orange County oil boom district.  Johnson first picked up a baseball in local sand lot games.  “From the first time I held a ball, it settled in the palm of my right hand as though it belonged there and, when I threw it, ball, hand and wrist, and arm and shoulder and back seemed to all work together,” he would later recall.  He easily became a star of the Fullerton Union High School nine where he struck out 27 batters during a 15-inning game against Santa Ana High School, first attracting press note.
He was a tall, blond, gangly hayseed of a kid with impossibly long arms that dangled to his knees in and spindly fingers that engulf the horsehide.  Had he been playing back East, he would have been snapped up by scouts.  But California was practically off of the baseball horizon.  Johnson seemed to have no hope of a professional career and worked with his father in the oil fields when not in school. 
Then in 1906 Johnson was lured to Weiser in eastern Idaho to play ball and work for the local telephone company. He once pitched 84 consecutive scoreless innings and dominated the semi-pro Idaho State League. He caught the eye of a bush beating scout from the Washington Nationals and was signed in July 1907 at the age of nineteen. 
The perpetually bottom dwelling Nats hustled him right into the rotation with not even a cup of coffee in the minors.  His appearance, and a friendly, awe shucks demeanor did not exactly strike fear into his opponents.  Ty Cobb, as mean as Johnson was gentle, and not one to cut any of his opponents any slack, described what would become the first of many encounters:
On August 2, 1907, I encountered the most threatening sight I ever saw in the ball field. He was a rookie, and we licked our lips as we warmed up for the first game of a doubleheader in Washington. Evidently, manager Pongo Joe Cantillon of the Nats had picked a rube out of the cornfields of the deepest bushes to pitch against us. ... He was a tall, shambling galoot of about twenty, with arms so long they hung far out of his sleeves, and with a sidearm delivery that looked unimpressive at first glance. ... One of the Tigers imitated a cow mooing, and we hollered at Cantillon: “Get the pitchfork ready, Joe—your hayseed’s on his way back to the barn.” ... The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup. And then something went past me that made me flinch. The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn’t touch him. ... every one of us knew we’d met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ball park.
Frenemies--Walter Johnson and Ty Cobb.  The pitchers was as nice as Cobb was ornery but there was no other hurler in the game Cobb respected more.
The Nats, more popularly known as the Senators, were the dregs of the new American League.  Sportswriter Charley Dryden of the San Francisco Chronicle accurately described the team—“Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”  The arrival of the lanky teenager gave the fans something to cheer about.
Take Labor Day Weekend of 1908 in Johnson’s sophomore year with the team and playing before some of the biggest crowds of the season.  The kid started three consecutive games and shutout the New York Highlanders (soon to become the Yankees) in each giving up six, four and two hits respectively—a stunning display of power and endurance in any era.
Johnson began to collect nicknames as sportswriters fell all over themselves in praise of his blistering fastball and the unconventional side-arm delivery that mystified right handed batters.  Despite his English family heritage, he was called the Big Swede because of his blond hair and Scandinavian sounding names.  Others called him Barney after race car driver Barney Olefield.  But the moniker that stuck was hung on him by the dean of sports writers, Grantland Rice—the Big Train because locomotives where then the fastest and most powerful  thing on wheels.
In 1911 and ’12 Johnson racked up two consecutive 30 plus win seasons—33 games and 35 respectively, enough to lift the Senators into contention, respectability, and two second place finishes in the American League.  The next year Johnson won the first of his two Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards. 
After that notoriously penny pinching ownership failed to surround Johnson with first class players with offensive punch and defensive range.  The team fell back to mediocrity and Johnson lost games he should have won.  But he improved his effectiveness by developing a wicked curve ball to accompany his fast ball.
After ten years in the league, by which time he had probably lost a little zip, someone thought to bring Johnson into a a Bridgeport, Connecticut munitions laboratory which recorded Johnson’s fastball at 134 feet per second or 91.36 miles per hour.  Many modern flamethrowers can routinely meet or surpass that speed, but it was completely unmatched in its day.
Despite Johnson’s superb control, such speed was intimidating.  Fearing to be hit, most batters backed off the plate giving Johnson an advantage.  But Ty Cobb realized that the notoriously soft hearted pitcher was terrified of hurting anyone.  So he actually crowded the plate which did cause  Johnson to throw wide and get the aggressive base runner with his sharpened spikes on base with walks if he couldn’t get a hit. In 1920 a frustrated Clark Griffith, the Senator’s field skipper, scraped together the money to buy the franchise.  He left the bench for the front office where he began to build a solid team around Johnson beginning with player/manager Bucky Harris  and the offensive punch of  Goose Goslin and Sam Rice.  In 1924 the Senators captured their first American League pennant, two games ahead of Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees.      
As a mature  pitcher in the 1920's Johnson still had plenty of mustard on his fast ball ahd had developed a wicked curve.  He he is beging the wind-up for the sidearm deliery that mystified hitters.
In their first World Series Washington faced John McGraw’s heavily favored New York Giants.  Johnson had uncharacteristically lost both of his starts, but the Senators managed to force a game 7.  With the game tied 3-3 in the 9th,   Harris brought in Johnson in relief on just one day’s rest telling him, “You’re the best we got.”   Johnson held the Giants for four innings until the Senators were finally able to put a run across the plate giving them their first—and only World Championship.  Johnson took home his second MVP award for the season.
The Senators were back in the World Series in 1925 against the Pittsburg Pirates.  This time Johnson won his first two outings but lost game seven.
After that Johnson went into a modest decline, and decided to retire after the 1927 season—a 21 year major league career. 
In 1928 Johnson became the manager of the Newark Bears of the International League.  After that Clark Griffith  tapped him to manage his old team, which had fallen back into second division status.  A lot of people thought he was too easy going to manage the rowdy ball players of the era.  But Griffith began to find solid talent and the team responded to Johnson’s gentle touch.  Unfortunately the American League also fielded the powerful Murder’s Row of the Yankees and the nearly as talented Philadelphia Athletics.  Despite a strong run, Johnson and the Senators were only able to finish in third place in 1931 and ’32.  Johnson, for the first time in his life was fired.

Walter Johnson as manager of the Ceveland in the 1930'
He bounced back as manager of the Cleveland Indians in from 1933 through ’35.  He managed a mediocre team ending each season in the middle of the pack.  He was replaced for 1936 just ahead of the arrival of another young phenom with a blazing fastball, Bob Feller, who would remind a lot of people of Johnson in his prime.
After spending a season as an announcer on the Senator’s radio broadcasts, Johnson retired to to Germantown, Maryland where he became a beloved civic leader and dabbled in Republican politics, including an unsuccessful 1940 run for Congress.  
Johnson was enshrined as one of the Imortal Five--the only pitcher among the first five inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1936.
Johnson died of a brain tumor in Washington shortly after his 59th birthday, and was interred at Rockville Union Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland. But you couldn’t bury Johnson’s accomplishments on the field.  In 1936 he one of the first five players elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame along with Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth,  and Honus Wagner—the Five Immortals.  Here is why:
Johnson had twelve 20-win seasons in a 21-year career, including ten in a row from 1910-1919 including those two 30 years.  He pitched Johnson's record includes 110 shutouts, the most in baseball history, had a 38–26 record in games decided by a 1–0 score, and lost  lost 65 games because his teams failed to score a run.
Johnson won the triple crown for pitchers in 1913, 1918 and 1924, and two American League MVP awards Johnson twice won the American League Most Valuable Player Award, a feat accomplished since by only two other pitchers, Carl Hubbell in 1933 and 1936 and Hal Newhouser in 1944 and 1945.
His earned run average of 1.14 in 1913 was the fourth lowest ever at the time he recorded it; it remains the sixth-lowest today, despite having been surpassed by Bob Gibson in 1968 (1.12) for lowest ERA ever by a 300+ inning pitcher.  For the decade from 1910-1919, Johnson averaged 26 wins per season and had an overall ERA of 1.59.
Johnson won 36 games in 1913, 40% of the team’s total wins for the season. In April and May, he pitched 55.2 consecutive scoreless innings, still the American League record and the third-longest streak in history. In May 1918, Johnson pitched 40 consecutive scoreless innings; he is the only pitcher with two such 40+ inning streaks.        
There are slews of various records still on the books and various formulas concocted to compare pitchers of vastly different eras generally rank him as the best pitcher of all time.   In 1999, The Sporting News ranked Johnson number 4 on its list of Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players, the highest-ranked pitcher. Later the same year, he was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team.