Remembering and Forgetting

There are lots of temples that celebrate Jewish holidays not on the day they fall, but on the Shabbat closest to the holiday, in order to assure at least someone is observing it. I hear about this happening with Sukkot and Purim and Simchat Torah. It’s all about the convenience factor.

We Americans love convenient. We love easy. Why not? But here’s the problem. When the actual day of the holiday is no longer special, then we lose its essential sacredness. Our week is disrupted, and things are thrown off. Which is the point. We’re supposed to be a tad inconvenienced for the greater good of a sacred observance.

Those who practice the “holiday by convenience” argue that if they didn’t do it that way, then they wouldn’t even get enough people to make a minyan. I’m sympathetic to that position. But I think it’s ok to demand more of ourselves as Jews. It’s ok to say I have to leave work an hour early or write a note and tell the teacher it’s a holiday and my kid may not get to his/her homework that night. It’s ok to acknowledge – what? – 4 times a year? – that I have to make a special effort. Everything isn’t supposed to be easy. Sometimes we have to show allegiance to more than just “what works.”

Memorial Day started in the late 1860s as a response to the horror and grief left in the wake of the Civil War.  600,000 soldiers died in that war and it traumatized our nation. Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day, an allusion to the annual custom of going to the graves of dead soldiers and decorating them with flowers.

Memorial Day was on May 30th every year. But in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees; the change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday. This created the 3 day weekend for Federal workers. It also was a shot in the arm to businesses.

The late senator from Hawaii and decorated war hero, Daniel Inouye, tried every year until he died in 2012 to return Memorial Day to its original May 3oth date. Inouye lamented that “in our effort to accommodate many Americans by making the last Monday in May, Memorial Day, we have lost sight of the significance of this day to our nation. Instead of using Memorial Day as a time to honor and reflect on the sacrifices made by Americans in combat, many Americans use the day as a celebration of the beginning of summer.”

As Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.” I’m not expecting any big calendar changes any time soon. Memorial Day is too commercialized to move. As for the Jewish holidays, you will find me here ready to daven on all of the appropriate holiday evenings and Yizkor services as they fall on the Reform calendar. Maybe it’s a bit quixotic, but these days truly are holy.

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