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  • Amy Blumenthal

Holidays at Home Influence Jewish Identity

(Left to Right): Cheryl Moser, Abigail Pogrebin, Elana Karan, and WP President Eileen Graves at the Women’s Philanthropy annual meeting on May 17, 2017.

Some of my fondest memories are of celebrating Jewish holidays with my family – both growing up and now with a family of my own. This has been an evolving journey for me. When I was a child, my family celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover, but we didn’t mark Shabbat or other holidays in any way. What we did celebrate meant a lot to me, as I understood that these traditions reflected the core of who we were, and also represented a direct link to prior generations of our family. I vividly remember our Passover seder each year, especially my father singing some passages in Yiddish as his father had when he was growing up.

I attended a university with very few Jewish students – quite a shock for a girl who grew up in Los Angeles surrounded by a huge Jewish community! It was there, having made close friends who were Jewish, that I began to learn about other Jewish holidays and to celebrate with them and their families.

When I moved to Milwaukee with my husband and two young daughters, we found a synagogue home at Beth El Ner Tamid, then later at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, and our daughters attended the Milwaukee Jewish Day School. We started welcoming Shabbat every week with lighting candles, blessing the wine and challah, and enjoying a special Shabbat dinner together. I literally had never seen a sukkah before we moved here, but now we build our sukkah each year (designed by my daughter!) and celebrate other holidays that were unbeknownst to me as a child.

The consistent thread that has run through our evolving celebration of the Jewish holidays is the desire to learn about them and openness to doing so. At first I was uncomfortable in college asking my friends about holidays and traditions that I was not familiar with, but I quickly found that no one judged me for my lack of knowledge. Quite the contrary – my friends and their families happily included me in their holiday celebrations and I learned about them through the joy of experiencing them.

That journey has continued for me as an adult. I have continued to learn about different Jewish holidays by experiencing them with friends and with our congregation, but also by reading about them and asking lots of questions. Now I’m comfortable seeking new knowledge at own my pace and incorporating Jewish holiday celebrations into our lives in a way that’s right for us. I believe that the more we know about our holidays and traditions, the more we can make them a meaningful part of our lives, strengthen our Jewish identity, and pass them on to the next generation.

Speaking of learning more about the Jewish holidays, I am looking forward to a very special book club event on November 29, co-sponsored by the Coalition for Jewish Learning and Women’s Philanthropy of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. We will be discussing Abigail Pogrebin’s book, My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, which chronicles the author’s yearlong intellectual and spiritual journey to explore and learn about the Jewish holidays. Those of you who attended the Women’s Philanthropy annual meeting in May 2017 heard Abby’s fascinating talk about this experience. Whether you have read the book or not, please join us at the Harry & Rose Samson Family JCC for this free event (and we will have wine, cheese, and chocolate as well)! Just follow this link to register:

Amy Blumenthal is the Director of Women’s Philanthropy for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. She and her husband Ed have two children, Emily (a sophomore at Brandeis University) and Rachel (a senior at Nicolet).

There are so many educational opportunities in Milwaukee. If you would like some help finding the right program for your child, contact Tzipi Altman-Shafer to talk about how you can “Go Jewish” with your family (414-963-2718 or


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