Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Oy, Chanukah

Chanukah begins on Wednesday night this year. Tomorrow night. December first. Yes, it is confusing. Even we Jews are confused. Why – everyone is wondering -- does Chanukah coincide with Christmas some years, and other years, Chanukah arrives weeks before?

The answer is that the Jewish calendar is different from the secular calendar. The Jewish calendar is lunar, and the secular calendar is solar. Since each Jewish month is only 28 days long, and the secular months are 30 or 31 days long, after a few years, the Jewish calendar and the secular calendar become out of sync. The Jewish calendar corrects this by actually adding an extra month every few years in order to get things back to normal. This spring, there will be an extra Jewish month (Adar II) added, and by next Chanukah, Christmas and Chanukah will coincide once more.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Chanukah is really a very minor holiday in the Jewish year. The Jewish holy days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover are much more important than Chanukah. But due to its (sometimes) proximity to Christmas, Chanukah has become much more important than it was originally intended to be, especially in the U.S. And then, of course, there are the presents. Eight nights of presents.

Growing up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood, the only way my parents could convince us that celebrating Chanukah was a good thing compared to our neighbors’ exciting Christmas celebrations was by giving us eight presents: one for each night of Chanukah. Yes, our neighbors had the Christmas tree. Yes, they had Santa Claus. Yes, they hung stockings by the fire with care. Yes, they had Christmas carols. Yes, they had the beautiful decorative lights hung on the bushes and trees. But we had eight nights of presents.

In general, Chanukah traditions are much simpler than Christmas traditions. You light the Chanukah menorah. You sing some songs. You spin the dreidle (a special top). You eat chocolate gelt (coins). You eat potato latkes (pancakes). You get some presents. You give some presents. Repeat for eight nights. End of story.

Christmas traditions seem much more complicated and stressful to me. Procuring, transporting and putting up a live tree in your living-room. Decorating the house, inside and out. Buying expensive presents for everyone in your family. Cooking a special Christmas meal. Traveling to be with family. The whole Santa Claus thing.

On the other hand, Christmas takes up a huge chunk of space in the American consciousness. It’s really really hard to be left out of the Christmas festivities when all the radio stations are playing Christmas music, everyone other TV show is about Christmas, houses are decorated with Christmas lights, every store is loaded with Christmas paraphernalia of all kinds, everyone wishes you Merry Christmas, etc. As a child, I really really really wanted to celebrate Christmas. In spite of the eight nights of presents. I wanted a tree. I wanted a stocking. I wanted Santa. I wanted all of it.

Now that years have passed and I have a child of my own, I think things are somewhat better in our multi-cultural, pluralistic, internet-connected world. My son is interested in Christmas, but he doesn’t seem quite as jealous as I remember feeling growing up. We generally celebrate Christmas with a close family friend, and after decorating her tree and exchanging presents, he seems to have had enough of Christmas for one year.

But the “December dilemma” remains. What does it mean to be Jewish during a prolonged, public, and pervasive holiday season? It becomes even more complicated for interfaith couples, now a large proportion of Jewish families. Do they buy a Christmas tree even though they are also celebrating Chanukah? Do Christmas ham and potato latkes go together? Can Santa visit as well as Judah Maccabee?

I’m not sure if we will ever solve the “December dilemma” here in the U.S. Meanwhile, I’ll sing along to Christmas carols on the radio, enjoy the pretty lights around town, wish my neighbors Merry Christmas, light the candles, spin the dreidle, eat latkes, and hope that the next generation does it even better.

P.S. I'm happy to announce that this post was published last week in the "Being" blog, which was the inspiration for it being written in the first place.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chemicals are in us

I recently became aware of a podcast series put out by the friendly folks at Environmental Health Perspectives (a monthly journal of peer-reviewed research and news on the impact of the environment on human health, published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences). I started listening to some of these podcasts today. Very. Scary. Stuff.

Here is one about long-term effects of in utero exposure to BPA. A quote from the scientist who was interviewed:
NEWBOLD: BPA is still a compound that we just don’t know that much about, and we really need to be concerned about this, because we know from studies from the CDC that over 90% of the population actually has been exposed to BPA because we’re picking it up in the urine. We also know that it’s in a lot of different plastics, so the potential for exposure is quite high. So we need to know the long-term effects—if there are truly any adverse effects. And right now the animal studies are leaning toward that direction.
Here is one on flame retardants, know as PDBEs

AHEARN: So they’re in almost 100% of Americans. How did they get there? How did they get into our bodies?

STAPLETON: That’s a big area of research that scientists are still trying to understand. We know for a fact that PBDEs are ubiquitous. They are found in a lot of our food products. They’re found in the air in our home. They’re found in the dusts in our home at fairly high levels relative to levels in the outdoor environment. There is definitely an exposure pathway from the presence of these products in our home and through our diet. Research definitely shows we’re getting exposure from both avenues.

Here's a third podcast, on breast milk:

Ernie Hood: Dr. Goldman, what do you recommend that we do to make human milk even safer than it is today? Are there actions on a macro level that we can take to reduce the presence of these contaminants we’ve been discussing?

Dr. Goldman: Yes, I think so. I think on a macro level, what we need to do is develop policies where we are much more vigilant about avoiding the use of persistent chemicals and pesticides. We do not want to have anything that’s persistent and going to build up in the environment or in our bodies in our food supply, in the air we breathe, in the water we drink. Because we’ve learned over and over and over again that these persistent substances, if they do have adverse health effects, then over time there’s very little we can do about them. So, many of the chemicals that are found in human milk are no longer used today. Many of them were banned as much as 20 or 30 years ago and yet we still find them. And yet when these chemicals are persistent we can’t simply dial down the exposure levels, because some of them have half-lives that last many, many years.

Um...yup. That's the problem in a nutshell.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Chanukah mood

Thanksgiving is still a week away, and Chanukah comes shortly after, on December 1st. I'm trying to find that Chanukah spirit, so I'm turning to the internets for a little inspiration...

The candles sing Mi Y'Malel (interactive: click on the candles and see what happens!)

Hanukkah Hey Ya!

Hanukkah Hey Ya! Flash Mob (from last year, still great!)

John Stewart's Can I Interest You in Chanukah?

A Jewish Christmas Rap

A very young Adam Singer sings the Chanukah Song

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Onc appt @ noon

The sun is shining, and the birds are chirping, and the squirrels are busily searching for things to eat, and the day is unusually warm for November...and I have an oncologist appointment at noon. I am inexplicably sad about it. There is really nothing to fear. It's just a check-in. We'll exchange pleasantries, and she'll ask me how I'm doing. I'll tell her I'm doing just fine now that I'm off the study drug and the sleeping pills, and now that I don't have hot flashes and can sleep. I'll tell her that my periods finally came back. Not sure how she'll take that news. And she'll do a physical exam, and all will be well. But I still don't like going. It reminds me of everything that happened, and even though I feel like I'm pretty much past that now...it's still there. And I keep hearing about women being diagnosed with breast cancer, women having recurrences of their cancer, women with stage IV cancer, women dying of cancer. And I'm still scared. And angry.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I'm proud to announce that an article I wrote on the connections between breast cancer and the environment, similar to something I posted here on the blog in October, appeared in our local newspaper last week. If you'd like to take a look, here it is.

I'm pretty happy with the article, and I've received some nice feedback on it. Many people are surprised to learn that breast cancer has anything to do with the environment. I'm always surprised to learn that people are surprised: it seems so obvious to me. Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Still here

So we made it through October. Breast cancer awareness month is over.

(Deep sigh of relief.)

Football players wore pink gloves; the White House was lit up in pink light, as were the walls in Jerusalem. Yogurt lids were pink, and just about everything else you could imagine was pink.

But breast cancer is still here.

A cousin's sister was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. A friend who is a breast cancer survivor recently experienced a scare when a breast MRI showed something, leading to ultrasound and biopsy. Turned out to be only scar tissue, but scared my friend to death. RivkA, of Coffee and Chemo, died a few days ago. She lived with breast cancer for 5 years. 1,000 people attended her funeral in Israel.

Meanwhile, today is election day, and the politicians continue to be jerks. There is no intelligent discourse. Just sound bites and accusations and yelling.

It seems like more attention in general is being paid to the connections between breast cancer and the environment, but I'm not sure if anything substantive is being done.

There is legislation -- for example, the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010 -- which basically just asks companies to test their chemicals before releasing them into the world. Although I just read that this act is dead now. Too bad, maybe next year.

This time of year makes me feel a little sad. I'm still sad that the summer is over (!) and I still haven't accepted that winter is coming. Not my favorite time of year, although it has been a pretty fall.

P.S. Damn! I just realized that November is NaBloPoMo! (national blog posting month) I'm supposed to be doing a post a day! Argh!